Last week at CES, Secretary Elaine L. Chao introduced the latest guidance from the U.S. Department of Transportation on the topic of Autonomous Vehicles with the AV 4.0 Report. Forbes’s Richard Bishop provides an excellent overview of the report with his “unifying theme” article. Overall, AV 4.0 reads as a reasonable report which describes broad principles:
- Protect Users and Communities (Prioritize Safety, Emphasize Security and Cybersecurity, Ensure Privacy and Data Security, and Enhance Mobility and Accessibility)
- Promote Efficient Markets (Remain Technology Neutral, Protect American Innovation and Creativity, Modernize Regulations III)
- Facilitate Coordinated Efforts (Promote Consistent Standards and Policies, Ensure a Consistent Federal Approach, Improve Transportation System-Level Effects)
It also describes the truly impressive amount of work being done by the U.S. Government in the area of autonomous systems. One could imagine the organizational flows where every agency head is asked to provide details on their AV activities. The statement which captures the report best is in the accompanying letter by Secretary Chao and U.S. CTO Kratsios. The statement is:
“The landscape for AV innovation is complex and evolving. While significant investments and achievements are being made by industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations, further development of the technology itself is needed.”
Basically, the technology is not quite ready, so we will research, set high-level guidelines, and wait until there is sufficient understanding to drive regulations. This is a very reasonable sentiment and rings true for advanced AV systems. In fact, the article, “Reacting To The Proposals In The U.S. House’s Autonomous Vehicle Bill,” conveys a similar sentiment in reaction to the U.S. House’s efforts to force DOT into hard timelines for regulation.
From a public policy point-of-view, this stance is perfectly defensible as long as the exposure of risk is minimal, and this is indeed the case for advanced AVs (SAE 3-5) where the number of cars on the road are minimal. However, the canary in the coal mine is Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) functionality. ADAS is proliferating rapidly into the marketplace and so the risks involved are substantial. What exactly is contained in the term ADAS ?
Interestingly, there is really no common language or regulation on the topic. This has caused sufficient confusion that recently AAA, JD Power, Consumer Reports, and National Safety Council released a common naming structure consisting of four major categories (driving control assistance, collision warnings, collision intervention, and parking assistance). Driving control assistance and collision intervention in particular are interesting because the automobile is actively engaged in the driving task. How well do ADAS systems work ? It appears there are causes for concern. The Insurance Highway Safety Institute (IIHS) has done some studies of the effectiveness of ADAS systems, and found that tasks such as “active lane-keeping” were a challenge for the tested commercially available automobiles. So, how were these cars allowed on the roads ? The regulatory framework for ADAS is that the driver is ultimately responsible.
Is this a reasonable from a public policy point-of-view ? There have been instances of drivers asleep on highways while under cruise control, and of course we have already had some fatalities. Independent of the liability standard, the role of public policy is often to protect the public from itself. In this case, this would be overly trusting ADAS technologies. Thus, DOT is playing a dangerous game with the proliferation of millions of automobiles with functionality with unknown quality.
Overall, waiting for detailed regulation for advanced AV systems is reasonable, there is a need to extend the rich culture of measurable safety which exists for nearly all functions of the automobile to the realm of ADAS. If DOT does not take affirmative actions in this direction, it is likely that similar to the FAA/Boeing 737 Max situation, other regulators will take more severe actions and force DOT’s hand.