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. State of the states
The bipartisan effort to set a comprehensive federal framework for the safe testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the United States remains immobilized on Capitol Hill, even as its chief global rival has standardized its own testing protocols.
As we’ve long-warned, the US federal regulatory vacuum has triggered an avalanche of state and local safety and testing proposals.
By now, most part-time state legislatures have adjourned (barring only a handful of Midwestern capitols, whose lawmakers won’t be calling it quits for the year until later this month), leaving in their wake an anthology of competing and conflicting approaches to driverless cars.
By our count, 34 states took up consideration of autonomous-related proposals in this year already. All told, more than 125 bills were debated.
So far …
- The legislatures of twenty two states and the District of Columbia have explicitly approved the testing of driverless cars within their jurisdictions.
- Another 10 have done so by executive order, and 10 more have proposals pending before lawmakers or governors.
- Only eight states have taken no legislative or executive action at all on autonomous vehicles.
But don’t take those numbers to mean regulatory uniformity.
Tennessee’s SB151 defines a “vehicle operator” as the autonomous driving system. But Texas’ SB2205 recognizes the operator of an autonomous vehicle as the “natural person” riding in it. And Georgia’s SB219 considers the operator as the person who engages an automated driving system (which, thanks to teleoperation, can now be hundreds of miles away).
California, which requires that those firms engaging in public road tests report annually the number of miles driven and the frequency with which their technology was disengaged (that is, the number of times a human driver had to resume operation of the vehicle), recently relaxed its requirement for safety drivers, suggesting some fresh confidence by the state’s notoriously strict regulators.
Those reports, closely watched by analysts as markers of commercial progress but criticized by technologists for their sparse details about the nature of recorded disengagements, were released earlier this year in February, but requests for additional information by the California DMV were met this week by supplemental filings from eight firms: Aptiv, Baidu, Drive.ai, GM Cruise, Nissan, Telenav, Waymo, and Zoox.
What were previously logged as innocuous disengagements now have color. Reasons for disengagement include overshooting a stop sign (GM), side-swiping a vehicle while making a left turn (Waymo), and an operating system crashing and rebooting while still driving (Nissan).
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3. Insurers to the rescue
The assignment of liability in autonomous vehicles is among the more intractable propositions facing policy makers today. But could risk-averse insurers actually hold the key to accelerating the deployment of driverless cars?
That’s the hope of a new study by Oxford University spinoff Oxbotica, which is probing how connected, autonomous vehicles gather, store, use, and transmit data. From the MIT Technology Review:
“The idea is to explore not just how cars could pass data between each other in order to drive more effectively, but also how that data could be used by third parties like municipal authorities and, crucially, insurers. …
Oxbotica … shares some of that information with [insurer] XL Catlin–how many geographic features the car recognizes, say, or how many obstacles there are nearby–in order to create risk scores that could be used to determine how the car should behave. …
[S]ay a car spots a large group of children on the sidewalk, near a school, in the middle of the afternoon. While it doesn’t understand that class is letting out for the day, it does see more potential obstacles than usual. An insurer could process that data and then allow robotic vehicles down the road only at a low speed, or else have them re-routed. …
Oxbotica reckons that this kind of close relationship with insurers could help encourage lawmakers to allow more autonomous cars on the roads for testing, buoyed by the knowledge that expert risk assessors are involved in controlling them.”
4. Fake news
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk channeled his inner Donald Trump on an earnings call with investors and analysts this week, railing against a inflammatory press for distorting the life-saving potential of autonomous technology.
“The thing that’s tricky with autonomous vehicles is that autonomy doesn’t reduce the accident rate or fatality rate to zero. It improves it substantially,” Musk said. “Broadly there’s over a million, I think 1.2 million automotive deaths per year. And how many do you read about? Basically, none of them. However, if it’s an autonomous situation, it’s headline news.”
He added: “So they write inflammatory headlines that are fundamentally misleading to the readers. It’s really outrageous.”
In the same call, Musk teased out his “master plan” for the company: a peer-to-peer Tesla sharing network wherein private owners could set the terms of short-term sharing.
“The way things are obviously rolling towards is a shared electrical autonomy model,” he said. People will “share their cars and be able to offer their cars as effectively — kind of a robo-Lyft or robo-Uber, sort of like a combination of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb type of thing.”
“You can own your car and have 100 percent usage of an autonomous electric car. You can say it’s available generally to anyone who wants to use it when you’re not using it; you can recall it at will; you can restrict usage to only friends and family, or only users who are five-star,” he continued.
5. Courting the edge
Toyota announced this week it would break ground on a massive closed-course facility in Michigan to test driverless cars in scenarios it deems too dangerous for public roads.
It’s easy to understand the cachet a closed course would have in the wake of high-profile driverless car-related deaths–namely, no unpredictable humans to gum up the works–but Toyota says it means to use the new testing site to safely explore “edge cases” that’s presently too dangerous for public roads.
In particular, the facility will mimic congested urban environments, divided highways with high-speed entrance and exit ramps, and slick surfaces.
Toyota suspended its tests on public roads in the wake of the Tempe crash, but signaled it would resume them in the coming weeks.