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.
California’s Department of Motor Vehicles approved new rules last spring that allowed for the strict, carefully defined permitting of fully self-driving vehicles in a bid to reassert its bygone primacy over more permissive (that is, redder) testing jurisdictions.
At the time, we wondered whether the Golden State’s invitation to full—albeit still tightly controlled—autonomy might trigger a sort of regulatory gold rush among other AV-testing states, each more eager than the next to hasten the deployment of self-driving cars on their roads by easing testing rules.
It seems that the first domino to fall will be Florida, where a pair of Republican lawmakers have introduced companion legislation abandoning the state’s requirement that a human contingency driver be physically present in experimental, automated cars.
- The Florida bill states that “a licensed human operator is not required to operate a fully autonomous vehicle.”
- The bill also requires that all cars comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which still demand conventional controls (i.e., steering wheel and braking and acceleration pedals), though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year signaled it would reconsider its rules.
With its year-round sunshine and light-touch administrative state, Florida was among the first in the nation in 2012 to green-light self-driving on public roads, and the state recently has reaped some of the country’s flashiest pilots, including self-driving shuttles at The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in Central Florida, and autonomous pizza delivery in Miami.
- Then, as now, Florida is using AV legislation as a messaging opportunity. But that pro-business broadcast comes at possible risk.
- So what’s the right balance between public safety controls and commercial inducement? Unless and until the technology (and we should caution that all AV technology stacks are not equal) demonstrates that it’s truly road-ready, policymakers should continue to err on the side of caution.
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2. Dueling headlines Down Under
Shot: “Victoria and [New South Wales] give green light to autonomous vehicle future,” The Drive-
Chaser: “Aussie road signs a big hurdle for autonomous cars,” Motoring Australia
The theoretical, technological challenges to automotive autonomy are manifold (and, some consumer safety advocates would say, possibly insurmountable), but the practical operational hurdles—like the sorry state of lane markings and road signage in even developed nations—are no less serious.
Consider Australia, where neighboring Vic and NSW announced this week a major pilot and self-driving initiative.
On the very same day as their announcements, an executive at one of the country’s largest automotive import-dealers said Australia’s basic road infrastructure is in such disrepair and so inconsistent from one state to the next that self-driving cars won’t be able to safetly interpret the road and its rules.
- “If we want autonomous vehicles here in the near future, we need to fix our rules, regulations, signs, and basic infrastructure, and make it consistent across Australia,” Kate Cousins, the lead technical specialist engineer at Holden (née General Motors-Holden), told mobility consortium iMOVE.
- “I’ve driven across all of Australia and New Zealand … What we found is that we are very inconsistent in Australia. Every state has a different school zone … Different times, different fonts, different shapes, different size of signs, difference placement, different rules.”
Fast fact: Motorists are five times as likely to die on a Victorian country road than in a city.
The Auto(nomous) Bahn
- Apple is pumping the brakes on its secretive autonomous vehicle initiative, reportedly dismissing in excess of 200 employees.
- Swedish startup Mapillary thinks it has the solution to self-driving cars’ mapping woes: crowd-sourced data.
- Huawei, the Chinese smartphone maker, is reportedly at work on a system that would allow connected cars to monitor and report to police the condition of drunk drivers.
- Waymo said this week it would anchor a $13.6 million manufacturing facility in the Detroit, MI,
- Amazon has begun field testing a self-driving delivery pod to customers in Washington State. The pod, dubbed the Amazon Scout, was developed in-house.