The American States and the Autonomous Auto Conundrum

Tim Bajarin / March 13th, 2017

I have the privilege of working with a US state (who shall remain nameless) on various issues related to tech in general and in education, broadband policy and, most recently, the need to develop their own autonomous driving laws that would govern their roads in the future. All of the states will come under federal laws and policies for autonomous vehicles but these laws will be mostly applied to interstates and other federal roads the US government might control within any state’s borders.

At the moment, the US Secretary of Transportation, Ellen Chao, has the task of crafting the laws that will govern Federal roads. With a large team helping her, she is working diligently to try and get an initial draft of sample rules and regulations in place as soon as possible. They need this draft in order to get feedback from all types of companies and citizens who will want and need to weigh in on any regulations in order to help the Federal government create and fine tune their rules and regulations related to autonomous vehicles by the end of the decade.

All of the major auto makers are lobbying both the federal and state governments to be diligent in creating these laws as soon as possible, as these laws will impact how they design cars and what types of extra guidance systems, cameras and sensors they will need to install in order to get on the road legally.

At least two major car companies want to have a fleet of self-driving cars on the streets in major cities by 2020, with a goal of actually selling autonomous vehicles to individual buyers in the 2022-2024 time frame. Uber and Google, if they have their way, would like to start rolling out their versions of these cars even sooner.

During the recent Governors Meeting with President Trump in Washington D.C., all of the governors who attended the dinner with the president also had a side meeting with the Secretary of Transportation, who outlined portions of the government’s thinking on their autonomous vehicle strategy. She said their rules should be a starting point for every state to look to adopt when working on their own, more localized versions of state rules that will also need to be in place to compliment the Federal one but at a more localized level.

But, in talking with various different state officials dealing with crafting their own laws for autonomous vehicles, they pointed out to me that, at the moment, a real conundrum for them lies in any final Federal rules that will eventually make their way into law and how those laws can be mirrored for state laws yet they still need to have flexibility to create their own laws, even in competition with Federal laws driven by Washington. As they pointed out, given things like terrain, weather, and road conditions, as well as rural roads where even their own state laws are mirky at times, trying to craft state regulations to accommodate these quirks as well as adhere to all federal guidelines when they come out makes their job of developing state laws governing autonomous vehicles even more difficult.

These discussions with officials I work with as well as two other states whose officials I have been speaking to points out the incredible amount of work that must take place before we can have the proper rules and regulations needed to govern self-driving vehicles in the future. In fact, when I suggest to these state officials they will need to have their own laws in place by 2020, a mere three years from now, they pretty much scoff at this suggestion. In fact, these officials are not even sure the Federal rules and regulations can be in place by 2020 and meet the aggressive schedule of some auto makers who want to have fleets of self driving cars in major cities by then.

When I speak to officials at the city level, where they need to add cameras and sensors to things like traffic lights, street signs, etc. to communicate with self-driving vehicles when they approach intersections as part of a even more localized approached to crash avoidance intelligence, the first question they ask me is, “Nice idea but who will pay for that?” Besides adding new levels of technology and IT infrastructure to city roads and intersections, this added burden to make their streets smarter to deal with self-driving vehicles makes their head spin.

I think we in tech get too caught up in the big picture of autonomous vehicles and their value and promise and do not really understand the enormous complexities something like this adds to those who have to write the rules and regulations governing this new technology at the federal, state and local levels. It is going to take a great deal of planning and foresight of the people making this technology. They will have to understand what is needed and work very hard as soon as possible with regulators at all levels if they want to get their technology in place even in the next 5 years.

To that end, I really believe Google, Uber, the auto makers, and others involved with creating self-driving cars need to come together and create a serious road map to be used at the federal, state and city levels that educates on how self-driving cars are created and what they can and can’t do. They also should lay out what type of rules of the road are needed for them to even launch the first generation of self-driving vehicles. I know they are lobbying government officials now and providing some education but, from what I can tell, each of them are doing so only with their own agenda in mind. It would be in their best interests if they pool their efforts together and come up with what might be a set of first generation rules that can be applied to “Fleet Use” and then even more precise guidelines that can be in place by the time these companies want to start selling these cars to private citizens. If they want the help of the local cities in delivering even more sophisticated crash avoidance cameras and sensors, they need to lay out at least a basic blueprint for how smart cities need to develop the proper smart signs, traffic lights, etc., and not make them try and figure this out for themselves.

While I can see how the technology for self-driving vehicles is advancing rapidly and those behind it would like to get these vehicles on the roads as early as possible, I am convinced it will be the regulatory issues at the federal, state and local levels that will slow this advancement down. If the folks behind this technology do not come together to help these government officials navigate these completely new waters when it comes to autonomous vehicles, it will be the lack of consistent and concise regulations for the rules of the road that will keep self-driving cars from reaching their potential anytime soon.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • obarthelemy

    Nobody knew self-driving cars could be so complicated ! ;-p

    • klahanas

      Re: #2. That’s the problem with money, it cheapens everything…

  • klahanas

    It must be a great burden on Ellen Chao and her team (including you) considering that you are making decision now for deaths that will occur in the future. Oh yes, you’re saving lives too, but by influencing you’re “choosing”. You are moving controls from an operator to an inanimate object. A noble cause to be sure. Are you also moving the responsibility?

    Then…., what’s the rush? Why is the Secretary of Transportation’s team solving the car manufacturer’s problems for them, or helping them? Sounds like a State subsidy to me. I though we didn’t like that. Aren’t we a member of treaty’s against that? Are the car companies reimbursing the DoT for this effort?

    I’m not a lemming, but why the urgency? There’s no pressing condition to be solved, and autonomous vehicles are probably best done by evolution than revolution. Yes, that might mean special roads or lanes. More like an elevator or AirTran than a car at first.

    You are absolutely correct that regulations will slow this down. They should!
    See regulations don’t only add cost they add protection. Like any law, they need to be equitable and fair, but they MUST be effective.

    You are just as correct that these companies need to propose to you, and then you hit them with the ‘what ifs’ and regulate.

    • Ken Tenola

      “There’s no pressing condition to be solved.”

      Yes there is…over 30,000 traffic fatalities per year in this country. And the less pressing but significant condition of stress twice a day for people commuting to work and back home.

      • klahanas

        I conceded that there might be fewer fatalities, we don’t know that. For the fatalities that do occur, who’s responsible? There’s no jury of one’s peers for a machine.

        • Ken Tenola

          Most of the public doesn’t want to use public transit. They are so resistant to it that they would rather be stuck in endless traffic backups every day. And attempts to impose public transit would never pass the legislation.

          • klahanas

            I agree about the public’s desires, but are you then saying it’s not pressing enough to “force” them?

          • obarthelemy

            I wouldn’t say “doesn’t want to” use public transit. I know a bunch of people who would love to be driven to work, but can’t or won’t use public transport because there are no routes, service is unreliable or patchy, and conditions are disagreeable.

            I’d be curious as to how many Googlers choose to drive to work instead of using the luxury shuttles Google provides. (I’m sure other corps have the same).

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