AVS speakers emphasize importance of uniform legislation, safety for autonomous vehicles

From helping address the driver shortage currently plaguing the trucking industry to transporting passengers to and from their destinations, autonomous vehicles (AV) have no shortage of potential use cases for the present and beyond.

“As autonomous technology comes to market, it’ll have a broad and positive impact on the overall industry,” said Shawn Kerrigan, co-founder and chief operating officer of self-driving truck technology company Plus.ai, during the Automated Vehicle Symposium (AVS).

Before these vehicles can hit the roads at scale, though, there first needs to be some sort of uniform legislation to guide this technology, many speakers noted during AVS, which took place as a fully virtual show this year.

In recent years, progress has been made in terms of potential legislation to provide uniform regulations for autonomous vehicles, through the SELF DRIVE Act and AV START Act, respectively. Unfortunately, both acts stalled during their respective legislative processes, and as a result were not enacted. Many speakers expressed pessimism that a comprehensive bill for AVs would not be possible with the current Congress because of some of the policy issues that need to be ironed out; a process that has been made more difficult by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic gripping the United States and the rest of the world.

During a panel discussion focused on automated truck fleets and their potential to lead the way for AV deployment, speakers said that they were grateful for what they had now in terms of regulations, but remarked that greater uniformity was needed for this sector of the industry to keep driving forward.

“To us the most important thing is uniformity. These trucks are crossing state lines. Having a state by state patchwork of regulations makes things a challenge for efficient movement,” said Chuck Price, chief product officer of self-driving company TuSimple.

Culture of safety

Every year, nearly 40,000 lives are lost in the United States as a result of motor vehicle crashes. Many believe that autonomous vehicles could play a significant role in drastically reducing that number.

“The real promise for AVs, or the real potential for AVs, is to really reduce the far too large number [of deaths],” said Peter Kurdock, general counsel, Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety.

As the case with vehicles operated by humans, autonomous vehicles need some sort of standards to properly evaluate how safe they are.

One standard that has become popular in the industry is the ANSI/UL 4600 Standard for Safety for the Evaluation of Autonomous Products. The first standard designed to address the safety issues of autonomous driving, UL 4600 was issued by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a nonprofit standards development organization, and approved by a standards technical panel that included representatives from developers, academia, government and insurance, among others.

Taking a goal-based approach that tells a company what the goals are to make sure that it has done the tasks it has chosen to do properly and with enough coverage to ensure safety, UL 4600 addresses safety principles and processes for evaluating fully autonomous products requiring no human driver supervision.

“It’s a comprehensive body of consistent and verified best practices that the industry can now apply,” said Benjamin Lewis, Alliance Director, Liberty Mutual Insurance.

“But it’s not a rigid checklist, it’s an argument-based framework that you go through with evidence to build your case. That really, in our minds, sets it apart from some of the other standards you see in some of the other industries.”

Standards have always played a critical role when it comes to vehicles, but considering how fast this technology is progressing, they’re more important than they’ve ever been before.

“The overall self-driving industry, we’re completely interdependent, so the standards allow the industry to approach where there may be a gap in standards from a standpoint of consistency, and the implementation of best practices,” said Chris Mullen, director, Uber ATG Safety Standards. “That way, we can evolve safely together.”

Instead of focusing on standardizing how a company builds its autonomous vehicles, UL 4600 focuses on the primary thing that people will care about when it comes to autonomous vehicles: safety.

“Instead of standardizing the technology, we said: what is it that people care about? How you build [these vehicles] isn’t really what’s the issue,” explained Philip Koopman, chief technologist, Edge Case Research LLC. A recognized leader in the development of autonomous systems, Edge Case Research partnered with UL Standards to develop UL 4600.

“The issue is how do we know it’s safe. So, what this does is it standardizes how you talk about whether it’s safe. How do you talk about ‘did you do your due diligence?’ Did you do all of the things you should be doing? That’s what it standardizes. And that’s not going to change very quickly.”

Having a reliable safety standard for AVs plays a major role in proliferating a culture of safety, which is extremely important for an industry that can’t afford to have too many accidents before it loses public confidence.

“Safety culture…when we think about that, it’s pervasive. It’s all the time, it’s everywhere. It’s what you are, it’s what you do,” Mullen poeticized.

“You can’t go get it. I can’t go to amazon and order a safety culture.”

For Koopman, safety, or a lack thereof, starts at the top and trickles down.

“You have a good safety culture when there are two things that happen. The first is it’s okay to tell your boss there’s a problem. Part two: once you tell your boss, your boss actually makes sure it gets fixed. If either of those are broken, you’ve got a safety culture problem,” Koopman explained.

“If you don’t have the culture, you end up checking boxes. No standard can make you want to be safe. You have to actually want to do it. And then the standard is a guideline to get you there once you have the right culture to back it up.”

New job opportunities created by AVs

There is a widespread belief that once autonomous vehicles begin operating regularly, they will have a negative impact on the human workforce and will cause widespread displacement. During the panel discussion focused on automated truck fleets, speakers—all of whom represented companies doing work in this field—had a more optimistic mindset, and presented the various ways this technology could potentially transform, and even expand, the human workforce.

“We think there are going to be lots of new opportunities, and we think it’s going to have much less [of an] impact than some folks predict,” hypothesized Chuck Price of TuSimple.

Speakers noted that like all introductions of new technology, the infusion of autonomy into the trucking industry will create new job opportunities that don’t exist today; some of which will be well suited for people who may have decided to be truck drivers.

Envisioning a future where there’s a mixture of people and autonomous systems working together, many speakers theorized that job descriptions will change or shift, and new opportunities will be created within the human workforce. Some of the potential new job opportunities include operators of rescue vehicles and vehicles that are moving locally; inspectors of automated trucks before they depart; and opportunities for people to work in oversight centers that are responsible for watching the movement of many vehicles.

Speakers also noted that since these vehicles are years away from being capable of operating without a human still occupying them, no changes were imminent since humans won’t be removed from these vehicles anytime soon.

Speakers during the trucking panel also pointed out that they were seeking to solve a very specific kind of problem related to a shortage of drivers, so that specific segment within trucking is the most likely to be affected. With the driver community aging out, the trucking industry is getting fewer and fewer young drives, which will create “large problems” that will have a major impact on the industry down the road if action isn’t taken now. 

“In general, it’s been made clear to us that the trucking industry needs this. It’s not a matter of just convenience, or just making things a little bit better,” said Cetin Mericli, co-founder and CEO of Locomation, which provides what it calls the world’s first trucking technology platform to offer human-guided autonomous convoying.

“This is a substantial need. That’s why we are doing it.”