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. Let’s make a deal. Or not.
Two years of unified Republican control of Washington met a bitter, if not unpredictable, end on Tuesday when Democrats clawed back a majority in the US House of Representatives, leaving Silicon Valley and Detroit bracing for tough self-driving regulations after years of light touch.
The new, divided power dynamic Senate Republicans awoke to on Wednesday morning has changed the political calculus for passing a long-stalled autonomous vehicles framework.
You might say Republicans have their own Trolley Problem—and, like the famously haunting thought exercise, none of their options are particularly attractive.
Scenario one: Do nothing and hope for the best. When the new Congress convenes next January, all unfinished bills will be cleared from the decks. That includes an AV package that cleared the House unanimously by voice vote more than a year ago but has since languished in Senate committee due to Democratic safety and cyber concerns. States, as laboratories of innovation (if not consensus), have stepped into the void to regulate safety minimums. While not optimal, this federal-state dynamic has kept driverless development on track and Senate Republicans might choose to simply perpetuate the status quo rather than concede to Democratic demands for stricter safety controls.
Scenario two: Make a desperate lame-duck deal. Republicans have so far resisted calls from Democrats and consumer advocates to raise safety minimums and requirements. But they may conclude that modifying the bill today will be an easier pill to swallow than what the Democrats propose after taking back Congress, and because of this, some in Washington believe the log jam could finally break. Better the devil you know.
Scenario three: Make peace with the new Democratic leadership. For the first time in eight years, Democrats in the House will control what legislation reaches the floor, and you can be sure that any driverless car proposal they advance will include significantly more robust consumer protections than what unanimously passed the same chamber just a year ago.
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2. Split screen: “The very human challenge” of going driverless
A California motorcyclist was injured in an interstate collision with one of Waymo’s self-driving minivans this week, but the company said the accident was the fault of a human safety driver who was trying to avoid another vehicle that had abruptly merged into its lane.
Only days earlier Alphabet-owned Waymo, a Google sibling, was granted permission by Golden State regulators to operate fully autonomous vehicles without the presence of contingency drivers.
Taken together, this split screen poingantly demonstrates the proximate challenges—and imperative—to go driverless.
By Waymo’s telling, the accident occurred after a human-operated vehicle swerved into the lane of the Waymo car, whose human safety driver executed a defensive driving technique to avoid collision. The safety driver, however, failed to see that a motorcycle that was previously trailing it had shifted lanes and was in the process of overtaking it.
In an accident report, the company said if the car’s self-driving technology had remained enabled, its 360 degree-view could have avoided the accident.
Cities large and small all across the world are aggressively chasing buzzy driverless car pilots in what you could consider a new California Gold Rush.
It’s not surprising, then, that even fictional towns have joined the fray. On an episode of The Simpsons that aired on Sunday, CarGo, a tongue-in-cheek composite of Silicon Valley’s biggest names in self-driving cars, brought autonmous ride-hailing to Springfield, the sitcom’s fictional home town.
The pilot program, which the town’s mayor hailed as a major economic win that would produce “eight to 12 jobs” (“Eat our dust, Toledo!,” he says), seemed almost too good to be true for Homer and company. But it wasn’t long until the world’s most famous family learned the trade-off they were making for driverless commuting: insidious privacy-erasing data mining.
Before you write off the show’s dystopian view of driverless technology, remember first that the show famously predicted in a March 2000 episode a Donald Trump presidency.
4. The Auto(nomous) Bahn
- Tencent, the Chinese mobile gaming giant, is actively recruiting autonomous driving engineers for a new project in California.
- Mickey’s plans to go driverless in Walt Disney World has gone into the ditch amid a bitter legal battle between bidders and one-time partners.
- One-third of US roads are unpaved. Still more are poorly marked, or feature battered or unclear road signage. Here’s how AVs will cope.
- Is there an ethical case for driverless cars breaking traffic laws?
- Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, said he still expects to bring a fully self-driving car to market next year.
5. Know everything AV, all the time
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