Driverless Commute – April 6

Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, presented by the global law firm Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to autonomy.

1. Zero

After a years-long rulemaking process, the California Department of Motor Vehicles announced in February that it would soon withdraw its contingency driver requirement for the testing of autonomous vehicles on the condition the car be responsive to a remote teleoperator. Additionally, the state required that cars be tested first in controlled environments and that they meet SAE’s definition for Level 4 or 5 autonomy, which require no human intervention.

The state’s new driverless regime, which prompted the governor of neighboring Arizona to adopt even more permissive testing protocols by executive action days later, took effect Monday, making it finally legal to test truly autonomous vehicles in California.

And yet there is not one such vehicle in operation in the state today.

Buffeted by a pair of gruesome driverless car-related deaths, the pace with which pilot programs were cresting new testing thresholds—a near-daily occurrence in the last six months—has pointedly flatlined.

To date, only one as-yet-unidentified firm has petitioned California for the opportunity to test within the new, expanded framework. And regulators don’t appear all that agreeable to the proposition, either.

In a statement this week, the California DMV said through its spokesperson:

The DMV has received one permit for driverless testing. The department has 10 days, starting April 2, to let the applicant know if the application is complete. If it is deemed complete the application will be thoroughly reviewed.

There is not a timeline on when the DMV approves a permit after receiving a complete application. The DMV is not disclosing the name until the application is deemed acceptable. … The department will not approve any permits until it is clear that the applicant has met all of the safe operation requirements set forth in law and in the regulations.

Translation: What technologists hailed as the next and necessary step in the path to automotive autonomy is a pretty steep one, and one that neither industry nor regulators are inclined to take today as questions remain about the technology’s road readiness.

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2. Redundancies

The fundamental allure of autonomous vehicles—this grand promise that they’ll save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives—requires the public’s almost paradoxical acceptance that some among us may die as a consequence.

Auto makers and technology firms must bear the burden of proof that driverless cars are safe. But safe as a measure relative to human drivers is a pretty low threshold, after all: you can count the number of driverless car-related deaths on one hand, but you’d need another 600 just to count the number of pedestrians killed by cars driven by human operators last year alone.

The next phase of autonomy is likely the most dangerous, as we’ve said many times over. The practical delta between conditional and complete automation is a significant one and how auto makers bridge it will determine whether the public (and government) decides driverless cars are worth the public safety risk.

We’re not in the business of praising red tape or those who carelessly unroll it, but California had it right when it stipulated that any driverless car still be remotely responsive to a teleoperator. Until such a time that a pedestrian can be reasonably confident that any autonomous car won’t flatten them, governments should pursue creative redundancies (like teleoperation) that advance technology while still ensuring safety.

3. Wait and see

The British government signaled this week it would keep its regulatory powder dry unless and until foreign governments and industry move to create legal and safety standards of their own for autonomous vehicles. Per the website The Register:

In a letter to the House of Lords, which had raised a number of questions about the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill currently before Parliament, junior transport minister Baroness Sugg said the government is holding back until the various technologies have matured enough to be regulated without harming innovation.

‘Whilst we do know that there will be different types of automated vehicles, with varying levels of sophistication, it is not possible at this stage to state what those changes will be. With this in mind it would not be appropriate to set definitive regulations in legislation at this time,’ wrote the baroness.

4. Staying alert

Imagine knowing every word of consequence, whether spoken (on radio, cable and local affiliate news programs) or written (in printed and digital formats, including social platforms) on the subject of automotive autonomy. No more surprises, only opportunities.

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Eric Tanenblatt

About Eric Tanenblatt

Eric Tanenblatt is the Global Chair of Public Policy and Regulation of Dentons, the world's largest law firm. He also leads the firm's US Public Policy Practice, leveraging his three decades of experience at the very highest levels of the federal and state governments.

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James Richardson

About James Richardson

James Richardson is a strategic communications counselor with 15 years’ experience advising presidential candidates, Global Fortune 500 executives, national nonprofits, and sovereign governments on strategic communications and reputation management. He helps lead Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs practice.

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