The Driverless Commute, presented by Dentons: Top 5 things to watch for in 2019; Japan might allow TV consumption in AVs; BMW unveils self-driving motorcycle

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 full autonomy.

1. Five AV things to watch in 2019

It’s been a decade since Google set in motion the once inconconceivable moonshot that a car could safely operate itself, but the administrative state in Washington, DC, has yet to catch up—even as increasingly robust self-driving programs go to market.

Whether the feds’ laissez-faire approach is a function of intentional design or lazy deficiency, increasingly restive state and local governments have begun exploring their own complex, and often competing, regulatory answers to the persisting questions of safety and liability. And it’s that tension of authority that we believe will define when and how self-driving cars emerge from pilot status into the hands of the public.

Adapted from our new article for Bloomberg Law, here are the five most consequential legal, political and policy inflection points that will define automotive autonomy in the new year.

2. Will Senate GOPers and Pelosi play nice?

When the Republican-controlled House in September 2017 unanimously passed legislation to provide for a basic self-driving legal framework, it appeared that finally the feds would bring harmony to the disparate and discordant patchwork of state-based rules governing autonomous vehicles. But despite 15 months of horse trading with Democratic members, trial lawyers and consumer safety advocates, a failed half-court buzzer beater by Senate Republicans left the proposal dead on the vine in the lame duck.

  • Now, with newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) driving that chamber’s agenda, Congress must start from scratch—if it even takes up the matter at all. As consensus eludes the two parties on virtually every policy these days, don’t expect swift action to normalize federal driverless rules.

3. Will states set licensing requirements for AV safety drivers?

While most firms engaged in driverless pilots have internal training programs for their so-called contingency drivers, no state-mandated uniform training exists.

  • As new pilots proliferate across the country, pressure is building on state legislatures and transportation authorities to require new training protocols for contingency drivers of self-driving cars.

4. California dominoes?

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles approved new rules last spring that allow for the strict, carefully defined permitting of fully self-driving vehicles in the hopes of regaining its longtime edge over more permissing states. 

  • With California having opened the door to true autonomy, will other similarly eager states follow its lead and ease their own testing rules? 

5. The taxman cometh?

California’s state legislature last year authorized the city of San Francisco, pending municipal ballot approval, to levy a new tax on trips taken in autonomous vehicles, opening a potentially huge, new revenue vein for city hall.

  • Will cash-poor local governments continue their campaigns to induce pilots and commercial offerings through tax incentives? Or will they surrender to the impulse to start taxing the industry?

6. Spectrum scuffle?

The Federal Communications Commission recently signaled it would reassess how the radio spectrum intended for wireless communications should be allocated, potentially repurposing a band of spectrum which, for more than 20 years, has been reserved for only automotive applications.

  • Carmakers haven’t done much with their spectrum share (until recently, at least), which has led technology firms to become increasingly vocal in their desire to see those underutilized airwaves reassigned. Now, the FCC is considering a proposal to allow the spectrum that is currently designated solely for automotive applications to be shared with unlicensed uses, such as Wi-Fi, so that valuable spectrum will no longer remain underused.
  • The move puts the telecommunications and automotive industries on a collision course given the staggering diversity of potential uses for the spectrum and the risk of serious harm to automotive applications that could result from interference caused by other users.

7. The Auto(nomous) Bahn

  • Walmart announced it has begun piloting a grocery delivery program in Arizona with startup Udelv, which unveiled at this week’s CES a new self-driving van powered by Baidu’s open-source platform.
  • At the same tech show, BMW unveiled an autonomous motorcycle. It safely navigated a parking lot without capsizing.
  • Aurora Innovation, the self-driving startup co-founded by Waymo’s one-time engineering head, a former director of Tesla Autopilot and Uber’s former autonomy and perception lead, is expected to announce a new round of funding that exceeds $500 million, a significant jump from the $90 million it raised just a year ago.
  • Japan’s National Police Agency released this week proposed legislation that would allow for operators of self-driving cars to watch television programming on built-in screens while the car is in autonomous mode.

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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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