Google: Please, Wash­ing­ton, make the laws on driver­less cars

Stymied in Cal­i­for­nia, the com­pany turns to Congress “If ev­ery state is left to go its own way, it would be … im­prac­ti­cal”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - −Tim Hig­gins

In the U.S., the fed­eral govern­ment over­sees car safety, while states han­dle the driv­ers. That worked fine un­til the cars started be­com­ing the driv­ers. The bell­wether le­gal frame­work for fully self-driv­ing cars is in the hands of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles. The depart­ment’s draft rules, re­leased in De­cem­ber, would force au­ton­o­mous cars to look a lot more like to­day’s mod­els than the pod­like de­signs Google and oth­ers are test­ing. The state wants to keep the steer­ing wheel, brake ped­als, and a li­censed driver, among other things.

To head off Cal­i­for­nia, Google has shifted its lob­by­ing to the fed­eral stage, ask­ing Congress to put reg­u­la­tory au­thor­ity firmly in the hands of the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. “Con­gres­sional ac­tion is needed,” Chris Urm­son, di­rec­tor of Google’s self­driv­ing car pro­ject, told the Se­nate Com­merce Com­mit­tee on March 15. “If ev­ery state is left to go its own way, it would be ex­tremely im­prac­ti­cal to op­er­ate an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle across state bound­aries.”

Google has rea­son to ex­pect its cars will find fa­vor with fed­eral reg­u­la­tors, which blame hu­mans for 94 per­cent of auto crashes. At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, Sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion An­thony Foxx said he’d pro­posed a 10-year, $3.9 bil­lion fund­ing pack­age for self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles and that the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment agency, would work with states to de­velop a model pol­icy. NHTSA in Fe­bru­ary told Google it con­sid­ers the com­pany’s soft­ware a driver.

With­out changes, ex­ist­ing fed­eral mo­tor safety stan­dards would re­quire car de­signs sim­i­lar to those out­lined by the Cal­i­for­nia DMV, ac­cord­ing to a March 11 depart­ment re­port. Google wor­ries it would take NHTSA years to fi­nal­ize rules with­out a con­gres­sion­ally au­tho­rized short­cut. But the sen­a­tors as­sem­bled at the Com­merce Com­mit­tee hear­ing seemed bullish.

“Fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments may need to re­think how they reg­u­late and li­cense ve­hi­cles for the fu­ture,” said Chair­man John Thune (R-S.D.). “We must be care­ful not to stymie in­no­va­tion be­cause of a lack of imag­i­na­tion.”

Within a decade, 1 in 8 cars sold around the world will have au­ton­o­mous fea­tures, mak­ing them a $42 bil­lion-ayear mar­ket, Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group es­ti­mates. Xavier Mos­quet, a se­nior part­ner for BCG’s au­to­mo­tive prac­tice, says per­fect­ing the tech­nol­ogy re­quires mass ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, which in turn re­quires con­sis­tent le­gal stan­dards.

Im­prov­ing car de­signs through trial and er­ror shouldn’t be the pub­lic’s task, says John Simp­son, an ad­vo­cate at non­profit Con­sumer Watch­dog. Google’s test cars have logged more than 1 mil­lion miles on pub­lic roads over the years yet still oc­ca­sion­ally need driv­ers to take over to avoid a crash. Dur­ing the Se­nate hear­ing, Duke Univer­sity ro­bot­ics pro­fes­sor Mary Louise Cum­mings warned that self-driv­ing cars aren’t ready for mass de­ploy­ment and said NHTSA shouldn’t is­sue stan­dards for them any­time soon. “There is no ques­tion that some­one’s go­ing to die in this tech­nol­ogy,” she said. “The ques­tion is when and what can we do to min­i­mize that.”

The feds aren’t mov­ing at light­ning speed; NHTSA has planned some pub­lic meet­ings over the next few months. For now, Sil­i­con Val­ley lob­by­ing group TechNet says it’s track­ing about 80 state bills that could af­fect au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. “Clearly some of them are go­ing to be com­pet­ing with Cal­i­for­nia in terms of try­ing to be the re­search bed or the de­ploy­ment bed of self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles,” says David Strick­land, a for­mer NHTSA head who lob­bies for the law firm Ven­able.

Dur­ing March’s an­nual South by South­west con­fer­ence in Austin, Mayor Steve Adler wel­comed other U.S. may­ors to the city to show off the pod­like Google cars crawl­ing around the state cap­i­tal. In Utah, state Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Spendlove has pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to study au­ton­o­mous de­signs and says he hopes his state will be more le­nient than Cal­i­for­nia. He wants to be “en­cour­ag­ing the test­ing, en­cour­ag­ing the op­er­a­tion,” he says, “rather than be­ing re­ally heavy on regulation.”

The bot­tom line Google is push­ing for fed­eral pre­emp­tion of laws on self-driv­ing cars, though some states are ea­ger to get them on the road.

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