Jake Fisher, left, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, shows Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the features of a Tesla Model 3 at Consumer Reports’ test track in Colchester, Conn.
Federal and state officials, once eager advocates of self-driving cars, now are pumping the brakes and demanding greater accountability and information that autos and tech companies may not be willing to provide.
Until now, governments have been willing to let private industry lead the way in development of autonomous technology, with light-touch and voluntary guidance from NHTSA and states such as California, Arizona and Michigan. After two high-profile fatalities related to self-driving cars, issues such as system malfunction, the limits of human attention span, and broader legal questions have come to the forefront of public conversation.
And lawmakers suddenly are realizing how little they know about the technology.
“It was not an issue that I knew a whole a lot about, and I was just bombarded by all sides,” said Indiana Republican state Sen. Michael Crider, who oversaw the state’s attempt to introduce autonomous regulation, which failed one month ago. “I’m sick of the whole topic.”
Blumenthal checks out a Cadillac CT6 with the Super Cruise partially autonomous driving system.
Haves vs. have-nots
The divide between those with technical expertise and those without is at the root of tension between public and private groups that otherwise agree some legal framework is necessary to govern these vehicles. Experts say the future of autonomous vehicles will hinge on how the industry and legislators work together.
“There’s a number of issues that are the responsibility of the state because they have the police power; they’re responsible for the financial responsibility laws,” said David Strickland, spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbyist group that represents Ford Motor Co., Waymo, Lyft, Uber and Volvo. “But also there is work at the federal level to make sure we don’t have a Balkanized regulatory environment.”
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Strickland, who was a NHTSA administrator under President Barack Obama, said the industry fears overzealous or misguided regulation that locks companies into specific technologies.
Self-driving cars may present a new challenge for legislators by fundamentally changing the architecture of the vehicle by removing steering controls and shifting critical safety features into the realm of software, where regulators have less expertise.
“It’s almost as if a self-driving car is a different vehicle, a different concept entirely,” said Alan Morrison, a George Washington University professor who specializes in administrative law and government regulation. “Congress doesn’t know enough to even know what to do now. Neither Congress nor anybody else is stepping up to the plate and dealing with very difficult issues.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states have either passed legislation or issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles. However, just a handful address autonomous vehicle deployment comprehensively. Some, including Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee, merely address discrete issues such as vehicle platooning, creating autonomous vehicle study groups or pre-empting city regulation of the technology.
Legislation to create a national framework governing autonomous vehicles, the AV START Act in the U.S. Senate, has been stalled since late last year because of concerns from safety advocates.
One opponent, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., took a ride this month in a Cadillac CT6 with its Super Cruise partially autonomous system enabled and in a Tesla Model 3 on Autopilot mode, the autonomous highway driving system the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. His ride was sponsored by Consumers Union, the research and advocacy branch of Consumer Reports. The Hartford Courant cited Blumenthal’s reaction as “frightened,” with him remarking, “I’m not standing in the way of progress.”
Said Will Wallace, Consumers Union’s senior policy analyst on self-driving cars: “We have not seen the kind of focus that is warranted on the safety of partially automated vehicles, including the kinds of technologies that we’re very concerned can lead to foreseeable crashes like those investigated by the NTSB. Automakers need to be honest with legislators about the level of uncertainty that exists here.”
Critics say the industry has not engaged with policymakers substantially on issues such as insurance liability, licensing and safety, instead diverting discussion to the promised future benefits of autonomous technology.
“Do your homework,” said Indiana Republican state Rep. Ed Soliday, a former aviation executive who authored the state’s ill-fated self-driving car bill. “Everybody’s beginning to understand there’s a lot of hyperbole in the vision casting for autonomous vehicles.”
Soliday’s bill failed because of disagreements on how self-driving car companies would be licensed and higher insurance standards they could be required to maintain.
The legislation would have created an independent group to issue reporting requirements, including information such as when and where companies would be testing, and issue and revoke licenses. Legislation in New Hampshire has run into problems for similar reasons.
“There’s not a lot of trust” among the companies, said Crider, the Indiana senator. “They all have spent a lot of money to develop their technology, and they don’t want it stolen.”
Soliday criticized groups such as the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and the Auto Alliance, accusing them of working in bad faith and promoting model legislation that he believes is too broad, allowing companies to deploy on public roads with little or no advance notice to state officials.
“They basically treated us like we were stupid,” said Soliday, who toured the country extensively to learn about this technology and was vice president of safety for United Airlines. “It’s a very frustrating experience. They need to change their attitude.”