From Unmanned Systems Magazine: Self-driving cars ‘will be a reality,’ but regulatory hurdles remain

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For the automobile industry, it might be said that everything old is new again, helped along by the coming of automated vehicles.
 
As in the early days of the industry, many players are entering the AV space, regulators are wondering how to keep up and the public is unsure of the technology.
 
“Automated or “self-driving” vehicles are a future technology rather than one that you’ll find in a dealership tomorrow or in the next few years,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says in an overview of its guidelines for automakers and state regulators. “A variety of technological hurdles have to be cleared, and other important issues must be addressed before these types of vehicles can be available for sale in the United States.”
 
That said, NHTSA says the coming of AVs is inevitable.
 
“Fully automated cars and trucks that drive us, instead of us driving them, will become a reality,” it says. “These self-driving vehicles ultimately will integrate onto U.S. roadways by progressing through six levels of driver assistance technology advancements in the coming years.”
 
Within those two statements is room for a lot of work, from the federal government to the states to automakers and their suppliers.
 
Ginger Goodin, director of the Transportation Policy Research Center at the Texas Transportation Institute, says the federal government has staked out a key role, namely requiring that AVs conform to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), with which vehicles must comply in order to be roadworthy. They currently mandate that cars must have steering wheels and brakes, so if automakers want to test vehicles without such people-centric controls, they must obtain a waiver (for instance, General Motors has asked for a waiver to deploy vehicles without steering wheels or brake pedals by next year).
 
The states, meanwhile, are left to regulate how vehicle operators are licensed, the rules of the road, how insurance is regulated and other functions.
 
However, Goodin says the fact that self-driving cars are their own operators — once fully automated, they won’t have human drivers — means that if states regulate the cars as operators they might wander into safety performance requirements, which is the federal domain.
 
In the meantime, states are busy setting rules for how, or whether, self-driving cars can be tested. Texas is among the most lenient — “we regulate plastic bags more than we regulate autonomous vehicles,” Ginger Stoeltje, an assistant research scientist for the Texas A&M TTI says — and California may be the most strict.
 
State rules
 
The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks state activity related to AVs. Nevada was the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles in 2011, and since then, at least 41 states and the District of Columbia have considered legislation relating to AVs, and 29 states and D.C. have enacted legislation. Some states require a safety operator in the vehicle, many don’t. 
 
“There’s a lot of different activities, but you still have the patchwork” of rules that Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao warned against, Goodin says.
 
To try to fend off some of that confusion, the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit that develops model legislation across a wide variety of topics, has been working to develop legislation for AVs that states could use. 
 
Earlier this year, the group created a draft of the Highly Automated Vehicles Act for discussion purposes. The act notes that the term “automated driving” incorporates such a range of potential vehicles that “picturing and attempting to legislate for the singular ‘driverless car’ may be both impractical and counterproductive,” and instead sought to define the term “automated driving provider,” which is “the legal entity that vouches for automated operation — and that thereby makes an explicit promise to the state and its public.”
 
A release note accompanying the bill text notes that most of the committee working on it preferred to retain vehicle registration requirements, especially those from outside the industry; committee members from the industry “preferred to abolish any registration.”
 
As it stands, the draft version says that automated driving providers must self-certify to NHTSA that their vehicles meet safety requirements and promise states that they will abide by the rules of the road. People riding in self-driving cars for fully automated trips would not need to have driver’s licenses, nor would they to “drive an automated vehicle under automated operation.”
 
In a response to the draft model bill, the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which was formed by Ford, Lyft, Volvo Cars, Uber and Waymo, says no new registration process for self-driving cars is needed, but the existing vehicle registration process is enough.
 
The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) also weighed in, questioning the need to remove drivers licenses until the technology supports it, and saying the bill shouldn’t wade into insurance concerns until self-driving technology is more mature.
 
The Auto Alliance, made up of the makers of 70 percent of all cars and trucks sold in the United States, questioned the notion of an automated vehicle provider, and said, “The draft HAV ACT should defer to the existing state policies concerning liability, vehicle registration and insurance laws and acknowledge that real-world experience is necessary to determine the need for any deviation away from the current structure.” They also said that in discussing equipment, as the draft does, the ULC is stepping into “the province of the federal government.”

A hex map of state legislative action regarding self-driving cars.
Source: National Council of State Legislatures
 
Federal bills
 
The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill relating to automated vehicles, and the Senate has its own version, although it has yet to emerge from the Senate Commerce Committee.
 
According to an analysis of the two bills by the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank, the bills have many of the same goals, mainly cementing that the federal government is responsible for laws regulating the design, production and performance of highly automated vehicles and prohibiting states from establishing different vehicle safety standards.
 
However, the bills use the term “performance” in discussing AVs, Stoeltje says, which could cause problems with interpretation and lead to “unwanted overlap between a state’s authority to regulate what it thinks it is supposed to be regulating, and the piece that the fed government has carved out to regulate.”
 
In the realm of human-driven cars, the word performance refers to how a car functions to meet safety standards as the designer and manufacturer intended, which is regulated by the federal government. In the case of self-driving vehicles, a car’s functions could include obeying the rules of the road, which is something states regulate.
 
“It’s unclear enough that it’s raising questions,” she continues. “It may not end up being that big of a deal. It’s possible that you can say that part of the design and production of a car is that it perform functions that humans formerly performed, and that were regulated by the state. Since we don’t really know what performance means in an automated vehicle, it raises questions about an area like rules of the road and compliance with traffic laws, and whether now compliance with traffic laws might be a part of performance.”
 
In general, there are “no enormous differences” in the bills, says Stoeltje, although there are many areas where they differ on details. They also may differ from what states plan to require. For instance, both the House and Senate bills lay out some testing and reporting activity from automakers, but some states already do that and it’s not clear if they may be asking for more than the federal government will require.
 
“I feel confident in saying there is very likely room for confusion,” she says.
 
Automaker plans
 
While the legislation is working its way through the system, automakers are outlining their own plans for the future. Ford recently issued a report on its approach to developing self-driving vehicles, entitled, “A Matter of Trust.” 

Ford plans to have a fleet of self-driving vehicles in several cities over the next few years, with the goal of manufacturing a purpose-built self-driving vehicle in 2021 that can provide ride-hailing and delivery services. They won’t be sold to consumers, at least at first.
 
Ford’s car won’t have a steering wheel, gas or brake pedals, and its “brains” and senses, what Ford calls the Virtual Driver System, will come from Ford’s partner, Argo AI, an artificial intelligence and robotics company founded by former Google and Uber leaders. Ford announced last year that it is investing $1 billion in Argo AI over the next five years.
 
Ford’s AVs will also feature redundant brake and steering systems should the primary systems fail and will have upgraded brakes, wheels and body structures that can withstand more work cycles, similar to the fleet vehicles Ford builds for police and service fleets.
 
Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving effort, issued a similar report on its experience with driving more than five million miles in autonomous vehicle testing. The company says it’s moving toward fully autonomous systems because ones that still rely on human drivers, even for small parts of time, simply aren’t as good.
 
“In 2012 we developed and tested a Level 3 system that would drive autonomously on the freeway in a single lane but would still require a driver to take over at a moment’s notice. During our internal testing, however, we found that human drivers over-trusted the technology and were not monitoring the roadway carefully enough to be able to safely take control when needed,” the report says.
 
“As driver-assist features become more advanced, drivers are often asked to transition from passenger to driver in a matter of seconds, often in challenging or complex situations with little context of the scene ahead. The more tasks the vehicle is responsible for, the more complicated and vulnerable this moment of transition becomes.
 
“Avoiding this ‘handoff problem’ is part of the reason why Waymo is working on fully self-driving vehicles. Our technology takes care of all of the driving, allowing passengers to stay passengers.”

Below: Waymo’s self-driving “reference” vehicle, Firefly 2. Photo: Waymo
 

Waymo’s self-driving “reference” vehicle, Firefly 2. Photo: Waymo