The Government's Role in Developing Automated Vehicles

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



If any market sector is the perfect microcosm of the American political dichotomy, it’s the automotive space. More specifically, autonomous vehicles.  And at CES 2020, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao dropped the Grand Canyon of political fissures.

In Sin City’s not-so-hallowed halls, Chao’s department released “Automated Vehicles 4.0,” guiding the federal government’s role, vis-a-vie industry, in promoting the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles. And the administration’s fingerprints are all over it.

In the never-ending tiff between those who favor a bigger or smaller government, AVs are one of the most important beneficiaries. They simultaneously represent one of the biggest goldmines in human history and an unprecedented boon for national safety. Motor vehicle accidents constitute the 3rd or 4th-leading cause of death in the U.S., and the idea of eliminating those tragedies is intoxicating.

But how to go about it? And what’s the role of the feds – to facilitate or regulate? Or both?

AV 4.0 has a very specific opinion on the matter. It’s right there on page 1, where it assures us twice that the feds should engage with new technologies without hampering industry.

“This Administration continues to evaluate its priorities for Federal research and development to ensure that investments advance AV innovations without duplicating industry efforts,” it says. But to do that, it must “address legitimate public concerns about safety, security, and privacy.”

You can’t have one without the other, no matter your thoughts on the size and role of government.

Last year, a self-driving Uber car in Tempe, Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian, crystalizing these issues. The police attributed the crash to human error, and records from Hulu indicated that the driver, Rafaela Vasquez, was streaming “The Voice” until 9:59 p.m., which “coincides with the approximate time of the collision,” the report said.

At the time, I opined that self-driving cars – at least for now – can’t save us from ourselves. And that’s not altogether surprising – Uber’s “computer mode” is more like a “driver assistance” feature, and that particular mode disables the car’s automatic emergency braking.

As a result of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that carmakers submit regular safety reports certifying that safeguards were in place requiring human drivers to pay attention to the road. But these reports were voluntary, and according to the NTSB, only 16 of 80 companies testing AVs submitted them.

Of course, incidents like that could be a mere prelude to fully autonomous vehicles, where human input wouldn’t be needed or necessary. But the road to get there is muddled. Would it be in our best interests to strictly regulate AV testing (and perhaps, operation)?

AV 4.0 doesn’t preach limited government, but it does err on the side of letting industry regulate itself. It also reflects a pretty clear philosophical perspective, promising to “modernize or eliminate outdated regulations that unnecessarily impede the development of AVs” and promoting “sensitive emerging  technologies  through  the  protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights … to prevent other nations from gaining unfair advantage at the expense of American innovators.”

Where do you fall on the regulate/innovate scale? I’d encourage everyone to read AV 4.0 and decide for yourselves.