Driverless Commute – Skepticism around AVs remains as federal and state lawmakers and regulators speed along with testing and deployment.

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

1. Dubious

A sizeable majority of American adults remain sharply skeptical of autonomous vehicle technology even as federal and state lawmakers and regulators speed along with their testing and deployment, according to a pair of surveys released within the last week.

The numbers:

  • 63 percent would not support “mass exemptions” from federal motor vehicle safety standardsfor self-driving cars, according to a poll commissioned by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which is pushing lawmakers to pump the brakes on AV tech.
  • 75 percent overwhelmingly support the US Department of Transportation developing new safety standards for driverless vehicles, according to the same survey.
  • 67 percent are somewhat or very concerned about cybersecurity vulnerabilities of driverless vehicles, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • While 33 percent said autonomous vehicles are somewhat or much safer than the average human drivers, 36 percent said they were somewhat or much less safe, in the same Morning Consult survey.

The legal backdrop:

Last fall, the US House of Representatives green-lighted an early regulatory framework for driverless vehicles, paving the way for conditional sidestepping of outmoded safety thresholds that still require controls for the conventional operation of a car.

Parallel legislation in the US Senate has remained stalled since October, primarily over cybersecurity and privacy concerns. The legislative calendar is already cramped (and just wait until another stop-gap funding measure is on the horizon), but Detroit-area lawmakers attending this week’s North American International Auto Show expressed some tempered confidence that legislation would move by the summer.

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at an Auto Show forum Sunday that the DOT’s voluntary self-driving car guidelines released last year would be amended this summer by the agency. The new guidelines will pointedly address for the first time the subject of autonomous big trucks, a topic that was also excluded from both the House and Senate proposals. In an interview with Reuters, Chao promised a “tech-neutral” approach to eliminate “unnecessary obstacles to the development and integration” of autonomous technology.

Also from the Reuters article: “Automakers must meet nearly 75 auto safety standards, many written with the assumption that a licensed driver will be in control of the vehicle. The agency said in 2016 that current regulations posed ‘significant’ regulatory hurdles to vehicles without human controls. … Last week, GM filed a petition with NHTSA requesting an exemption to have a small number of autonomous vehicles operate in a ride-share program without steering wheels or human drivers. Chao said the ‘department will review this petition, and give it responsible and careful consideration.'”

We should note: The refreshed guidelines will keep in tact the Obama-era voluntary safety assessment letters in which auto makers and technologists are asked to publicly release information about experimental pilots.

The Driverless Commute, a subscription-based service, is provided by Dentons’ global Autonomous Vehicles team. If you believe a colleague or associate would benefit from this service, please share this link so they may subscribe.

2. Get on my lawn, you kids!

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the largest seniors group in the US, sponsored a Politico-moderated forum at the Auto Show on the mobility applications of autonomous technology for the aging population.

Everyone agreed: Deciding when it is time for an aging person to surrender car keys and license is a uniquely fraught proposition—and a key reason the AARP has seemingly thrown the weight of its 37 million-strong lobby behind autonomous fleets. From The Detroit News:

“Giving up the keys is one of the most difficult situations that older Americans face, Nancy LeaMond, chief advocacy officer for the AARP, said … ‘And three-quarters of seniors live in areas without public transit options, so not driving means not being able to get to the doctor, grocery store, visit friends and participate in other activities outside the home,’ she said. LeaMond predicted the problem will become even worse before self-driving cars become ubiquitous. And she said it’s vitally important that we find and support transportation solutions for older Americans.”

Last week, we brought you the news that Voyage had inked an agreement with the largest American retirement village to deploy a massive autonomous fleet to shepherd residents door-to-door.

Be smart: Watch this year for a cascading stream of mobility partnerships, especially in senior communities. There’s a soft irony that folks who still Ask Jeeves to Google their granddaughter’s Facebook will normalize artificial intelligence.

3. Arms race

Online retail and cloud computing giant Amazon shortlisted 20 cities this week to host its second headquarters, prompting the semifinalists to pledge even greater incentive packages than first promised.

Governors of some shortlisted states, like Georgia, have even expressed a willingness to convene a special session of the state legislature to sweeten the pot. HQ2, as it’s been dubbed, could cost upwards of $5 billion to construct and operate, and add as many as 50,000 jobs to the local economy, according to some estimates. And what are cities offering in exchange? In the case of Atlanta, the economic incentives package tops $1 billion; Chicago, at least $1.7 billion; Philadelphia, upwards of $3 billion; Montogomery County, MD, $5 billion; Newark, a whopping $7 billion.

To call some of the contenders desperate is an understatement. Sure, the project would infuse tremendous capital and government revenue, but would it functionally change a city’s culture and life? Probably not.

In the case of several HQ2 hopefuls whose highways are veritable constellations of red brake lights each morning and night (we’re looking at you, Atlanta),  autonomous cars would be a game-changer. But cities and states aren’t pursuing smart city programs, driverless pilots, mobility platforms with the same vigor as they’re courting HQ2—and certainly not with the same money.

But they should be. “In a short time—within months maybe—Ford will announce a partnership with a small- to medium-size American city to test out the use of autonomous cars by small businesses and a sort of shared-ride communications system to augment public transportation.

“‘From subway systems and bus lines to taxi fleets, ride-hailing services and personal vehicles, cities offer lots of ways to get around. This abundance of choice must make life easier, right? Unfortunately, no,’ Ford said in a statement. ‘And that’s because each mode of transportation has been optimized to work as well as it possibly can on its own, but getting them all to work together hasn’t been at the top of too many to-do lists. It would be, though, if more of us involved in the transportation system were focused on optimizing mobility for the people in our cities versus the technology itself.’

“There are a few ways to do that. Ford is working with a company called Autonomic to develop a way for transportation sources like buses, bicycles, self-driving cars and even stoplights to all speak to each other using a common language so they can work more efficiently together. Ford is also working with Qualcomm to create global adoption of C-V2X, or cellular vehicle-to-everything communication that will help share that information. And Ford will partner with delivery service specialists Postmates to get autonomous cars to act as delivery vehicles for businesses within the city, be they pizza parlors, flower shops or package delivery services. The idea is that businesses could thrive if they got together and shared autonomous cars to help them run.”

4. Ranked

Consulting firm Navigant issued report cards this week for Detroit, Silicon Valley and Shenzhen, finding that Waymo, the self-driving spinoff of Google parent Alphabet, had surged to the No. 2 spot, trailing only GM, in a remarkable leapfrog over virtually all of Detroit. (It’s worth noting that Waymo minivan didn’t even make an appearance at this year’s Auto Show in Detroit—and its absence was felt.)

But the big news is that Tesla, whose chief executive boasted would take to market a Level Five vehicle by the year’s end, was ranked dead last of 19 firms. The company has struggled to advance its driverless program since splitting with Israeli collision-avoidance firm Mobileye after a much-publicized 2016 crash.

First, the top ten:

  1.  GM
  2. Waymo
  3. DaimlerBosch
  4. Ford
  5. Volkswagen
  6. BWMIntelFCA
  7.  Aptiv
  8. RenaultNissan Alliance
  9. VolvoAutolivEricssonZenuity
  10. PSA

Since 2015, Navigant has scored the 20-or-so companies working on self-driving technology on 10 different criteria related to strategy, manufacturing, and execution. Basically, it asks, how good is their technology? Can they manufacture it at scale? And what’s their plan for getting it to the masses? After that, Navigant ranks the companies in four categories: leaders, contenders, challengers, and followers. … Last year, only four companies (and partnerships) landed in the leader category: GM, Ford, Daimler, and Renault-Nissan. This year, there are twice as many leaders … The appearance of Waymo, Intel, Bosch, and Aptiv is a sign of the growing prominence of tech firms and auto suppliers in the race to build self-driving cars. Meanwhile, a growing bloc of the auto industry not only sees autonomy as inevitable, but is making real progress on it for their own cars.”

Now, the bottom four:

  1. Honda
  2. Uber
  3. Apple
  4. Tesla

Navigant notes that while Cupertino-based tech giant [Apple] has ‘never developed a product as complex as an automobile,’ Apple has ‘existing capabilities that make it uniquely positioned to participate in the automated driving space.’ The company has applied for a license to test autonomous vehicles in California, and its test vehicle has been spotted a few times out in public. There’s no guarantee an autonomous Apple car will become a reality, but with a market cap of $900 billion, the company can’t be easily dismissed. And then there’s Tesla. Navigant assessment of the electric car phenomenon is sure to anger Elon Musk’s vociferous fanbase, but the truth hurts sometimes. It’s especially interesting because Tesla has been the most outspoken among automakers in terms of promising to deliver Level 5, fully autonomous vehicles in the near future. (Most companies purposefully avoid making any promises about the ability to buy these self-driving cars.) But Tesla is over-promising and underperforming, Navigant argues.”

Download the full report here.

The Driverless Commute, a subscription-based service, is provided by Dentons’ global Autonomous Vehicles team. If you believe a colleague or associate would benefit from this service, please share this link so they may subscribe.

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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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