On Wednesday, the unthinkable happened. Congress managed to act in a sensible, bipartisan way that put the future of consumers, business, and government ahead of the special interest politics and considerations that normally dictate their every move.
It didn't get a lot of attention – it’s hard to compete these days with Harvey, Irma, Donald and Kim Jong Un -- but the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously passed the SELF Drive Act.
The bill makes it easier for NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the federal Department of Transportation) both to regulate what a self-driving car will look like (rather than each manufacturer and technology developer trying to meet the rules of fifty different states, hundreds of cities and thousands of counties) and to grant permits for hundreds of thousands of self driving cars to hit the road for testing (it will take millions of collective miles of testing before autonomous cars can fully operate anywhere). It now goes to the Senate, but with broad-based, bipartisan support, its chances look good.
The SELF Drive Act is a great start and the 54 members of the committee deserve credit for acting in a sensible, thoughtful way (we never hesitate to criticize them when they behave like politicians), but it’s still only a start.
A lot more work remains on the regulatory front before any real world version of fully autonomous vehicles are available to consumers.
- There’s the rules of the vehicle and the rules of the road: Autonomous is particularly complicated because the federal government dictates how a car should function but local government dictates how the car then operates (speed limits, licenses, registration, etc…). Trying to pass rules for the operation of autonomous vehicles that are consistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is going to be very difficult.
While each major player in the field is doing their own lobbying and politics to influence the direction of local regulation, we need states to come together, decide jointly on rules that make sense, and enact them, pre-empting local jurisdictions. There are just too many towns, cities and counties to work through all of them individually (it’s the same reason why recreational drone startups or ed tech startups have so much trouble: there are far too many jurisdictions, politicians and bureaucrats to intelligently navigate).
It’s important that legislators and transportation regulators from different states and staffers from a variety of Governors offices start working together on a common set of rules that can be enacted in multiple states whenever the technology is far along enough to take the next step.
- What about trucking? Autonomous cars offer myriad benefits to society: far fewer accidents and injuries, far less traffic, far more productivity, and far more efficient use of vehicles. But so does autonomous trucking.
The politics are more complicated because there’s at least a perception that autonomous trucking would replace human truck drivers (between the need for humans in the truck somewhere and the shortage of truck drivers anyway, if done right over time, there doesn’t have to be a lot of displacement) and there’s a central entity – the Teamsters – to weigh in politically and oppose any progress.
But ultimately, Congress needs to act just as professionally and impartially on trucking as the House committee just did on cars, even if it makes Jimmy Hoffa and his members unhappy (that’s the price of progress). While adding trucking to the Senate version of the SELF Drive Act is probably a bad idea (not worth risking the whole bill over), the final legislation could give NHTSA authority to make rules around autonomous trucking.
- Ethics and Insurance: Beyond ensuring that autonomous vehicles are properly designed and that the rules of the road are logical and uniform, moving into a world of fully autonomous driving means resolving a number of high level policy issues.
For example, accidents will still occur sometimes and autonomous cars and trucks will have to react to them. That forces choices for artificial intelligence just like it does for real people. You either swerve left to avoid smashing into the tractor trailer in front of you that just stopped short or you swerve right. On the left are two elderly people. On the right is a teenage girl. Your choice will hurt someone no matter what.
The software dictating your autonomous vehicle’s actions has to be programmed to do something. The right answer isn’t easy or obvious. What happens when two autonomous vehicles collide? Who’s liable? And in a world where the number of accidents plummet, should we still require everyone to have auto insurance? Is that fair to consumers? Good for the economy? There’s a lot to work through.
- Privacy and Hacking: Congress took some steps to address privacy issues around the data produced in testing autonomous vehicles, but ultimately, everywhere you go is far easier to track when the car itself is setting the course and doing the driving.
That information could then be shared with anyone: companies who want to sell you stuff, government agencies, your boss. Is that a problem? What limits should be imposed on data sharing? And what about hackers turning autonomous vehicles into weapons? The threat of hacking can be used to justify not moving forward on anything, but it’s still a real world concern that has to be addressed. The House bill does marginally address cyber security (creates an advisory council on it) but more will be needed.
These are just a handful of the issues that will need to be adjudicated and resolved before we ever live in a true world of fully functioning autonomous cars and trucks. The benefits of autonomous are so clear and so obvious that even Congress was able to recognize it. But one move in the right direction doesn’t solve the problem or settle the issue. The momentum that got us to this point has to continue and for regulatory change to keep pace with technological change, it probably even has to accelerate. In other words, let’s keep our foot on the gas, so that one day, we won’t have to.