With billions of dollars committed to research and testing of vehicles driven by artificial intelligence rather than humans, the last thing automakers and tech firms want is balkanized regulations that vary from state to state or out-of-date federal rules for this fast-developing technology.
So General Motors, Toyota, Volvo and ride-hailing service Lyft had a unified message for members of the House of Representatives on Tuesday: Set a national framework for testing and deploying autonomous vehicles — and do it soon.
“One of the most significant challenges that we face today with respect to the testing of autonomous vehicle technology is the patchwork of policy initiatives at the state level,” Gill Pratt, CEO of the Silicon Valley-based Toyota Research Institute, said in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection. “More and more states are developing legislation and regulations that are unfortunately creating impediments to the development of autonomous vehicle technology.”
Although the Department of Transportation released a set of general national guidelines for self-driving vehicles last September, language within the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy “provides unclear or even conflicting direction” to states’ on their role in regulating this next-generation technology, Pratt said.
For example, Toyota tests its automated vehicles in the U.S. in Michigan, but not in California or Massachusetts where the company has research facilities because those two states have more restrictive rules.
“A number of proposed state regulatory frameworks veer into territory that has traditionally been the purview of the federal government – namely, vehicle safety performance standards.”
The benefits of AI-enabled cars range from convenience and reduced congestion to fuel-efficiency gains, but tech and auto companies tout the long-term promise of dramatic reductions in traffic accidents and road fatalities, which topped 35,000 in 2015.
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Mike Ableson, GM’s vice president for global strategy, noted that Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that govern what carmakers must do for conventional autos have to be updated to cover vehicles without human drivers. Since large-scale testing of automated vehicle fleets will speed up the pace of technological development, Ableson asked that the Secretary of Transportation be allowed to “grant specific exemptions” for that testing in advance of formal changes to FMVSS.
Lyft, like bigger rival Uber, has a long-term goal of transitioning to fleets of automated vehicles that provide low-cost transportation across the U.S. To speed that up, Congress should direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to start the rulemaking needed to update “FMVSS standards to accommodate the development, deployment and introduction into commerce of AVs at commercial scale,” Joseph Okpaku, Lyft’s vice president of government relations, told the House committee.
Along with unified rules, federal lawmakers should also address the absence of clear testing standards for self-driving cars, RAND Corp. senior research scientist Nidhi Kalra told the House subcommittee on Tuesday.
“There is currently no proven, practical way to test autonomous vehicle safety prior to widespread use,” said Kalra.
She argued for “concerted and immediate effort” to address that, and “develop those methods into a regulatory framework that balances the need for development and deployment of the technology with appropriate levels of safety at each stage of exposure.”
That’s a particularly important point, given that Elon Musk has said he’ll begin introducing ever-greater levels of automated driving capability in Tesla electric vehicles, beyond the company’s current semi-automated driving system, within months.
Tesla’s maverick CEO has also said he’s willing to push ahead with this plan, via wireless software updates, in advance of new established guidelines, as he believes overall vehicle safety will improve as a result.
While the Obama Administration got the ball rolling on federal policy for autonomous vehicles, the Trump Administration will have a much bigger role in managing the technology, as it becomes market ready. Tuesday’s hearing underscored the need for both Congress and the president to get moving.
This article was written by Alan Ohnsman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.