Thanks to the incredibly lax and voluntary guidelines outlined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automakers have hadÂ free reign to develop and test autonomous technology as they see fit. Meanwhile, the majority of states have seemed eager to welcome companies to their neck of the woods with a minimum of hassle. But things are beginning to change after a handful of high-profile accidents are forcing public officials to question whether the current approach to self-driving cars is the correct one.
The House of Representatives has already passed the SELF DRIVE Act. But it’s bipartisan companion piece, the AV START Act, has been hung up in the Senate for months now. The intent of the legislation is to remove potential barriers for autonomous development and fast track the implementation of self-driving technology. But a handful of legislators and consumer advocacy groups have claimed AV START doesn’t place a strong enough emphasis on safety and cyber security. Interesting, considering SELF DRIVE appeared to be less hard on manufacturers and passed with overwhelming support.
Of course, it also passed before the one-two punch of vehicular fatalities in California and Arizona from earlier this year. Now some policymakers are admitting they probably don’t understand the technology as they should and are becoming dubious that automakers can deliver on the multitude of promises being made. But the fact remains that some manner of legal framework needs to be established for autonomous vehicles, because it’s currently a bit of a confused free-for-all.
“It was not an issue that I knew a whole a lot about, and I was just bombarded by all sides,” Indiana Republican Senator Michael Crider, who oversaw the state’s attempt to introduce new autonomous regulation, told Automotive News. “I’m sick of the whole topic.”
That’s an issue with a lot of legislators. They aren’t technical experts and are primarily being educated by the very groups that are advancing this technology and likely have a strong bias to have things their way. Meanwhile, the automotive and tech industries don’t want the government to pass laws that effectively neuter developments they’ve poured billions of dollars into already.
“There’s not a lot of trust [among the companies],” explained Crider. “They all have spent a lot of money to develop their technology, and they don’t want it stolen.”
However, some public servants are feeling taken advantage of. Indiana Republican State Representative Ed Soliday, who authored the state’s failed self-driving car bill, said groups like the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers were basically trying to put one over on government officials.
“They basically treated us like we were stupid,” Soliday said. “It’s a very frustrating experience. They need to change their attitude.”
With opposition to AV START growing, at least in its present form, automotive groups may be forced to make concessions soon.Â Will Wallace, Consumers Union’s senior policy analyst on self-driving, said manufacturers need to be more open about the level of uncertainty surrounding autonomous development. The group recently took Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) for a joyride in aÂ Cadillac CT6 with its Super Cruise and Tesla Model 3 with Autopilot to illustrate how present-day semi-autonomous driving systems function on public roads.
Blumenthal remarked the experience was “frightening.” He also issued a statement in response to the fatal incident involving an Uber vehicle and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, in March. “This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share Americaâ€™s roads,” Blumenthal said. “Congress must take concrete steps to strengthen the AV START Act with the kind of safeguards that will prevent future fatalities. In our haste to enable innovation, we cannot forget basic safety.”
In the same month, a group of 27 individuals representing bicycle safety, pedestrians, environmentalists, law enforcement, and the disabled community submitted a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck SchumerÂ â€” urging them toÂ reconsider the deregulation on autonomous vehicle development that the AV START Act would ultimately authorize. Meanwhile, other consumer advocacy groups are pushing for assurances that driver data won’t be misused as vehicles become more connected.
“Do your homework,” said Soliday. “Everybody’s beginning to understand there’s a lot of hyperbole in the vision casting for autonomous vehicles.”
[Image: Ford Motor Company]