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. Leadership vacuum
The prospect of an ambitious self-driving regulatory package finally clearing the US Senate before the looming fall election is fading with the leaves.
The proposed regulatory paradigm, which technologists and automakers contend is critical for the rapid development of self-driving technology by alleviating the current federal-state regulatory friction, unanimously cleared the House of Representatives in September—2017—but has languished in committee in the Senate ever since.
At fault for the legislative traffic jam are a handful of lawmakers who’ve been in public office since before antilock braking systems became standard (that is to say, before some of you were born).
Meanwhile, global rivals in the self-driving contest, like China and Singapore, have already legalized autonomous vehicles and normalized rules relating to their testing across local jurisdictions. (Australia isn’t far behind, having signaled it’s moving towards national standards by early next year.)
The regulatory vacuum in the United States has left makers of autonomous vehicles to navigate a messy, inconsistent and often conflicting patchwork of state-based safety, licensing and privacy thresholds. And industry voices are increasingly voicing concerns that it’s delaying development.
Now, German auto giant Volkswagen has reportedly approached more than a dozen major carmakers about forming a self-driving coalition to self-regulate the industry. According to Automotive News, which was briefed on the coalition by an executive with knowledge of the arrangements, the goal is to settle on industry safety minimums as a means to answer (and shield against) questions of liability. More:
“VW has entered discussions with potential partners for an industrywide alliance, a company executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity since the plans were not public.
“The talks are about cost sharing, risk sharing and other liability issues, said the executive, who has direct knowledge of the issue. ‘When you are involved in an accident, you have a better chance in court when you can prove that your car adheres to the latest technical standard,’ the person said.”
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2. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom
Volvo, the Swedish luxury brand and world’s second-biggest maker of heavy-duty trucks, this week debuted a cab-less, all-electric big rig pod.
The new truck, the company said, isn’t intended for long-haul shipping, but rather for slow-speed, fixed-route travel between shipping ports and distribution centers. It would be connected to a remote operations center to monitor (and, if necessary, control) all movements.
It wasn’t clear, though, when the vehicle would go into series production or be commercially available.
Elsewhere in the robo-delivery world:
- Udelv, a last-mile delivery startup based in San Fransisco, announced this week a partnership with an Oklahoma City-based property development and management company to autonomously delivery groceries to “underserved communities” the capital city. The deal will see ten electric, autonomous vans deployed to the midwestern city in early 2019, according to a press release. The company claims it has an “accident-free” record.
- Nuro, which recently negotiated a deal with the United States’ largest supermarket chain by revenue, Kroger, to deliver groceries in test markets, became only the fourth AV company to release a voluntary safety report. (The three others being Ford Motor Company, Waymo and General Motors.) The report says that Nuro’s passengerless delivery pod—which one technology blog likened to a “literal and figurative lunchbox on wheels”—is programmed to self-sacrifice, an attempt to answer the so-called trolley problem.
3. The Auto(nomous) Bahn
- Chinese titan Baidu, which owns roughly 70 percent of online searches in that country and has begun aggressively investing in artificial intelligence platforms to power its self-driving initiative, is looking to bring its technology to new, Western markets.
- New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu’s veto of a proposed self-driving framework was sustained this week when the legislature considered, but ultimately failed to override, the interdiction. It was, by our count, the first driverless regulatory package to be blocked by a US governor, though there have been budget-related line-item vetoes of planning committees and panels.
- Transportstyrelson, the Swedish transport agency, has given the green light to Volvo to begin public tests in the country. The move was designed to help the homegrown carmaker meet its goal of bringing its self-driving technology to market by 2021.
- Blackberry chief executive John Chen warned in a talk this week that driverless cars could become “fully loaded weapons” if hacked. Best known for its phones, the Canadian company is partnering with Baidu to develop software for self-driving vehicles.
- Australia’s first on-demand robocabs were unveiled this week in Perth. The pilot, which leverages vehicles made by Nayva, will commence with trials at Perth’s airport and pivot to public roads next year.
- General Motor’s much-vaunted plan to begin testing its technology on Manhattan’s bonkers streets, seems to have evaporated, and some are beginning to blame the personal animus between the governor and mayor.
4. Know everything AV, all the time
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