Driverless Commute – March 16

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. Roadblocks

The long-stalled effort to adopt a comprehensive federal regulatory regime for autonomous vehicles hit another roadblock this week when five powerful Democratic senators voiced explicit opposition to a bipartisan proposal that would have sped the deployment and testing of experimental driverless cars.

The quintet: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (CA), whose state just conditionally removed contingency driver requirements, Richard Blumenthal (CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Tom Udall (NM), and Ed Markey (MA).

Their objections:

  • The bill, sponsored by Republican John Thune (SD) and Democrat Gary Peters (MI), makes permanent an exemption for experimental cars from current safety standards that should instead be “temporary and reviewable,” they wrote in a letter (PDF).
  • The bill, which preempts state-based safety and legal frameworks, should “not interfere with traffic laws and other traditional state or local responsibilities,” they added.
  • The bill doesn’t address partially automated cars, like Levels 2 and 3 automation, and they specifically cited the recent federal probe of a crash involving a Tesla that was operating in semi-autonomous mode.

Another wrinkle: Consumer safety advocates have recently begun arguing that, because the bill doesn’t explicitly prohibit forced arbitration between car makers and consumers, it could prevent consumers from being able to hold manufacturers accountable in litigation.

Without Democratic cooperation, the bill could face days’ worth of debate on the Senate floor at a moment when key issues and nominations, thanks in part to an anticipated unloading of key aides and cabinet advisors by President Donald Trump, are vying for bandwidth. If Republicans lose control of the Senate, as some handicappers have suggested is possible, Democratic opposition to key aspects of the proposal is even more important, and means major headaches and lobbying campaigns are ahead for automakers in the new Congress.

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. For your parents

Beyond the many legal and regulatory hurdles, one of the biggest challenges to getting autonomous vehicles on the road is the willingness of people to actually be in or around them.

They don’t know how they work, but they know they don’t trust them.

While surveys have shown nominal progress towards acceptance of autonomous technology, the public is still profoundly distrustful, especially in the United States. (China and Brazil are curious exceptions, according to Ford’s recent global consumer survey.)

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the function of LiDAR (and even the meaning of the acronym), but you probably also know people who don’t. For those, the MIT Technology Review has created an interactive guide to the various processes that fuel an autonomous vehicle—ranging from sensors and cameras to radar and LiDAR, to detailed mapping programs and connectivity platforms, and machine learning to artificial intelligence systems.


3. Upgrades

General Motors announced yesterday it would invest more than $100 million in an effort to retool a pair of existing plants for the engineering complications of producing autonomous vehicles, an acknowledgement of the costly barriers to manufacturing and deployment that exist beyond the obvious technical and legal.

The big-dollar investments come after the car maker filed a petition in January with US federal safety regulators seeking approval to operate as many as 2,500 vehicles that don’t meet existing safety standards, like the requirement of a steering wheel or acceleration and braking pedals.

GM CEO Mary Bara reportedly met with US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao this week to discuss the application and the company’s driverless efforts.

While many believed that legacy automakers had a natural manufacturing edge over upstarts and technology firms, GM’s upgrades are an implicit acknowledgement that their path isn’t also without challenge (or cost).

4. Symbiosis

Speaking of unspoken confessions, Lyft, who’s proved uncommonly adroit in the partnership game, unveiled a new deal this week with Canadian auto parts supplier Magna, one of the world’s largest, in a multi-year cost-sharing project to develop self-driving cars.

The tie-up, which includes a $200 million infusion of cash into the ride-hailing service from Magna, plugged a huge hole in Lyft’s hopes to jump on the autonomous leaderboard.

Magna, which is already contracted in Austria to build cars for Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Jaguar, has the manufacturing capacity and experience that Lyft, however well funded, lacks. Under the agreement, once the road-worthy tech has been developed and built, Magna would be free to sell it to other firms who would in turn be encouraged to enter their vehicles into Lyft’s network.

At the same time, the Nikkei reported that Lyft’s chief ride-sharing rival, Uber, is in talks to collaborate on self-driving technology with Toyota Motor Co. The Japanese business daily said the two companies were in talks for Toyota to leverage Uber’s automated driving system in at least one of its minivan offerings, but an Uber spokesperson stressed in a statement to US press that no decision had been reached.

5. Informed

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

Meet the Console, a best-in-industry intelligence service that marries advanced machine learning algorithms with human analysis to create comprehensive, real-time advisories on everything autonomy.

A service of Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs, which yokes traditional legal capabilities with government affairs, corporate competitive analysis, and strategic communications, the Console mines the public record to populate an easy-to-navigate knowledge platform.

TEST DRIVE IT FOR FREE: Email us for a free demonstration of the Console.

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.

Full bio