Welcome again to 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.
Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, signed an executive order this week abandoning requirements for contingency drivers in experimental autonomous vehicles.
The order came just days after neighboring California passed legislation allowing the testing of Levels 4 and 5 driverless cars that lacked a safety driver. The new law, however, stipulated that the cars must remain responsive to a remote operator in case of emergency. Unlike the new California regime, Ducey’s order makes no such demand of car makers—so long as they meet all federal and state safety thresholds.
“As technology advances, our policies and priorities must adapt to remain competitive in today’s economy,” Ducey said in the signing statement. “This executive order embraces new technologies by creating an environment that supports autonomous vehicle innovation and maintains a focus on public safety.”
Said another way: Arizona’s got your number, California.
Like a game of dominoes, watch for other key jurisdictions (Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Washington, DC) to bring their testing regimes into parity with Arizona’s new normal.
This increasingly hot arms race in and among the states is singularly a function of the federal government’s inability to adopt a comprehensive national safety and legal framework for the testing, sale, insuring, and private use of autonomous vehicles.
Federal safety regulators at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation have shown no resistance to the technology—just last week, DOT and NHTSA convened a special “listening session” for various shareholders—and legislation appeared poised to clear the US Congress after easily sailing through the lower chamber. The bill though has been stalled since last fall in the Senate, where it faces questions about safety and cybersecurity protections.
On Monday, major automakers joined with more than 100 technology firms and interest groups to sign a letter pressuring the US Senate to take action on the bill before May. (In a rejoinder, a group of “safety advocates” penned their own letter demanding the Senate not take up the bill short of new, aggressive safety standards.)
2. Seeing the world through a car’s eyes
The contention last month by Tesla’s Elon Musk that LiDAR tech constitutes “a crutch” provoked a lot of debate from our friends on the engineering side. While Musk has been arguing against LiDAR arrays since at least 2015 by our aging memories, the rest of the industry regards the sensors as an integral component of the full suite of driverless tech.
But this week, a team of researchers from Stanford University unveiled a new laser-based system that builds on LiDAR technology, measuring light refraction from bursts of laser light to find obscured obstacles.
The laser can literally see around corners.
“It’s a very simple tweak to how you do imaging, but it has major implications in terms of how you can reconstruct the images from that information,” Dr. Matthew O’Toole, who co-authored the research, told The Guardian.
Baidu abandoned this week its trade secrets complaint against JingChi, a startup founded by the Chinese search giant’s former driverless car chief.
The case has striking parallels to the recent legal flare-up between Waymo and Uber, and not just because the western shorthand for Baidu is “China’s Google:”
- In December, Baidu filed a ¥$50 million suit (just under US$8 million) against Wang Jing, JingChi’s founder, for allegedly stealing Baidu’s trade secrets related to autonomous vehicles.
- Last week, Wang resigned from JingChi.
- JingChi has joined Baidu as an official partner on its autonomous driving platform, Apollo.
Last month, Google sister firm Waymo agreed to a surprise settlement in which Uber, which had been accused of similarly stealing trade secrets, offered an equity payout of approximately $245 million.
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