Are Government Officials Souring On Automotive Autonomy?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
are government officials souring on automotive autonomy

Thanks to the incredibly lax and voluntary guidelines outlined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automakers have had free rein 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. 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 a 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 America’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 Schumer — urging them to 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]

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  • Big Al from Oz Big Al from Oz on Apr 22, 2018

    I do believe the government needs to step in working alongside ALL of the AV stakeholders to develop a set of guidelines and regulations. I personally believe that AV technology is no good unless the following is meet, these ought to be a minimum set of requirements; 1. Develop a set of standards for road infrastructure. My logic is AV technology really needs a better standard for roads and markings. 2. All technology is also intellectual property of the government. This will allow for independence for investigations down the track due to accidents. Accidents can also include hacking into AV software. 3. All AV technology must be proven safe prior to release onto public roads. 4. A single system must be developed selected at the end of the day for ALL vehicles. I do believe, like driving regulations, all must work under the same infrastructure and regulatory framework.

    • See 2 previous
    • Tele Vision Tele Vision on Apr 23, 2018

      @stuki You've mostly described a train. As with a train, what happens when the pods run out of segregated roadway? At, like, some kind of terminus - or terminal, even? The 'riders' all call an Über? I build and maintain roads for a living. The cost of a new road - just per 100m - would blow your hair back. Land purchases; easements; drainage ( big one ); route planning; crushing plant and site and transport for for pit run/fresh 3" Minus/420 rock/425 rock/pebble stone; clay site nearby, ideally; contractors for everything from heavy equipment to gravel trucks to flaggers... All this before a single mile of road has been laid. Do you think the pod users want to pay for that? Nor do I.

  • Dusterdude Dusterdude on Apr 23, 2018

    I am in full agreement with senators following comment: “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.” I think evidence is clearly showing that it is not nearly "ready for prime time", and the results of rushing the mass introduction of the technology could be disastrous

  • Vulpine Regretfully, rather boring. Nothing truly unique, though the M715 is a real eye-grabber.
  • Parkave231 This counts for the Rare Rides installment on the Fox Cougar and Fox Thunderbird too, right? Don't want to ever have to revisit those......(They should have just called them Monarch/Marquis and Granada/LTD II and everything would have been fine.)
  • DM335 The 1983 Thunderbird and Cougar were introduced later than the rest of the 1983 models. If I recall correctly, the first models arrived in January or February 1983. I'm not sure when they were unveiled, but that would explain why the full-line brochures for Ford and Mercury were missing the Thunderbird and Cougar--at least the first version printed.The 1980 Cougar XR-7 had the same 108.4 inch wheelbase as the 1980 Thunderbird. The Cougar coupe, sedan and wagon had the shorter wheelbase, as did the Ford Granada.
  • Ehaase 1980-1982 Cougar XR-7 shared its wheelbase and body with the Thunderbird. I think the Cougar name was used for the 1977 and 1981 sedans, regular coupe and wagons (1977 and 1982 only) in an effort to replicate Oldsmobile's success using the Cutlass name on all its intermediates, although I wonder why Ford bothered, as the Granada/Cougar were replaced by the Fox LTD/Marquis in 1983.
  • Ken Accomando The Mark VIII was actually designed before the aero Bird, but FMC was nervous about the huge change in design, so it followed the Thunderbird a year. Remember, at this time, the 1983 Thunderbird was the first new aero Ford, with the Tempo soon following. It seems so obvious now but Ford was concerned if their buyers would accept the new aero look! To get the Lincoln buyers warmed up, they also debuted for the 1982 auto show season the Lincoln Concept 90…which really previewed the new Mark VII. Also, the new 1983 Thunderbird and Cougar debuted a little late, in Nov 1982, so perhaps that’s why they were left out of the full line brochures.