Government regulations for highly automated vehicles will need to be limited and carefully crafted, lest they stand in the way of progress.
At stake in the hotly brewing automated vehicle realm are two opportunities. One is an extraordinary window of opportunity to radically reduce the number of deaths and injuries on American roads from unconscionably high levels. The other is to open potentially immense wealth- and job- generating opportunities for vehicle manufacturers, technology inventors, infrastructure providers and forward-thinking investors.
Highly automated vehicles will appear on roads far sooner than truly autonomous vehicles, but their essential functionality will be the same, in general terms. Highly automated vehicles will relieve drivers of many driving tasks, get passengers to their destinations and do so while staying clear of other vehicles, people, animals and objects. They will offer convenience, time for activities other than driving (including entertainment), fuel-efficient maneuvering and -- all things gone well -- improved roadway safety, which is the Holy Grail.
There is, of course, the potential for systems to fail drivers or for drivers to fail systems. Sensors may not sense, software and algorithms may have flaws, electronic control units may be hacked, repairs may damage performance, damage may require repair and power sources may be disrupted. Anything that can happen to a server, laptop, cellphone or TV could conceivably happen to an automated vehicle and cause harm to people and property besides.
Concern over these contingencies has caused regulators and lawmakers at the state and federal levels to think about the level of regulation needed before highly automated vehicles appear on American roads. They have also wondered how to regulate without impeding development and deployment so that safety advances and commercial opportunities aren't delayed unnecessarily. This is something to get right the first time, but no less difficult than threading a needle -- or an automated vehicle through dense traffic.
The federal government -- through the Department of Transportation and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- has articulated its preliminary thoughts in the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. The policy's approach is interesting and it represents a good effort to thread that needle.
Through the policy, NHTSA requests that before deploying vehicle automation technologies, businesses voluntarily submit safety assessments to the agency demonstrating compliance with 15 safety elements (including, for example, cybersecurity, a minimal risk fallback mode and ethical considerations).
The policy also identifies additional powers -- including pre-market approval as the Food and Drug Administration has for drugs and the Federal Aviation Administration has for aircraft -- that the Department of Transportation may request from Congress to address safety challenges. And it advises that NHTSA will, without change to its regulatory structure, investigate any safety concern associated with highly automated vehicles and "exercise its enforcement authority to the fullest extent."
The government's message is clear: Press on with your technology advances, but tell us what you're going to do before you do it; if you don't, or if we don't like the direction things are heading, we'll ask Congress for the official power to require pre-market approvals; and in the interim, we'll use every ounce of our power to keep roads safe from bad automated vehicle technology.
This may seem like a novel approach to regulating technology. Don't regulate; rather, ask. But NHTSA will undoubtedly get what it wants -- voluntary safety assessments -- at least from traditional carmakers, and it will therefore have the opportunity to react, if necessary, to new technology, which will have been heavily vetted by the traditional carmakers.
Official pre-market approval, therefore, would seem to be overkill, and could easily lead to delays in saving lives and realizing commercial opportunities.
Certainly, wannabe entrants may disregard NHTSA's request for voluntary submissions. Many inventors and entrepreneurs like to disrupt, for commercial opportunity and dramatic effect, and premature disruption in this space could have dangerous consequences.
But NHTSA has already demonstrated it has adequate power for such events. In particular, one startup called Comma.ai last year announced its intent to release a free software kit to facilitate building a device that can turn a car into an autonomous vehicle. But NHTSA quickly put the kibosh on that with a mere letter stating that NHTSA must ensure the product is compliant with regulations before it is released.