As Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said recently “one thing is certain: the autonomous revolution is coming. And as government regulators, it is our responsibility to understand it and help prepare for it.”
But after a flurry of hearings and bills in 2017, the policy debate over autonomous vehicles has stalled in Washington, but continues to grow at the state and local levels. Chicago has already upgraded over 500 parking garages to accommodate autonomous vehicles, and—following similar programs in Arizona and Pennsylvania—several autonomous taxi services are ready to merge on to California roads as early as next year. If this is your first time hearing of a driverless car, here is a quick rundown to get you up to cruising speed.
Over the past decade and a half, autonomous vehicle technology has been advancing in leaps and bounds. Today, a variety of computer-guided vehicles are starting to traverse public streets, and the largest challenges for both policymakers and drivers stem from the degree of automation a vehicle is equipped with. The Society of Automotive Engineers International categorizes autonomous vehicles by five different levels, from Level 1, which encompasses driver assistance technology like lane monitoring and blind spot detection, to Level 5, or fully automated driving from start to finish.
By using some combination of lidar (a laser based-form of radar), cameras, sensors, and traditional radar, autonomous vehicles are able to navigate streets and rely on artificial intelligence to process their surroundings to avoid accidents. When equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle communication, autonomous vehicles are able to form a connected network that exchanges information on each vehicle’s location, speed, and surroundings.
Autonomous vehicles are often seen as trying to disrupt a driving culture that has become entrenched in the ethos of modern American life. Yet despite being so ubiquitous, Americans have proven to be dangerously bad drivers since the invention of the automobile itself. Each year, there are millions of avoidable crashes and collisions, 94 percent of which are the direct result of human error. In 2016 alone, over 37,000 people in the United States died as a result of a vehicle accident. In fact, since the first automobile death in the United States in 1899, an estimated 3.7 million people have died, or roughly twice the number of Americans that have died in combat since 1775. By avoiding the human errors at the root of such accidents, autonomous vehicles offer a safer future.
However, at this point, human driving instincts and reaction times remain indispensable. As the recent death in Tempe, Arizona, reminds us, every vehicle below the 5th level of automation still requires an attentive human driver to monitor the road and take control over the vehicle when needed.
With the potential to reduce accidents and congestion—and alter how we design public spaces for cars —autonomous vehicles could fundamentally change how people live, work, and travel. But without the proper balance of regulations and protections, the adoption of this still-emerging technology could be slowed or stopped all together.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced competing bills to begin regulating and studying autonomous vehicles. The House version, known as the SELF DRIVE Act, passed that chamber in 2017. Meanwhile, the Senate’s AV START Act has been held up by safety concerns, particularly following the fatal incident in Arizona. While the House and Senate bills differ in several areas, both bills include provisions that broadly:
- Prohibit states from passing their own regulations on the design, construction, or performance of autonomous vehicles;
- Require manufacturers to submit safety evaluation reports to DOT and create cybersecurity plans;
- Create an advisory council to provide DOT with recommendations on regulating autonomous vehicles;
- Direct DOT to begin updating the required federal vehicle safety standards; and
- Increase the maximum number of exemptions from existing federal vehicle safety standards.
Though the Senate bill is bipartisan, several Democrats on the Commerce Committee have voiced their skepticism, particularly for its limited scope. Notably, neither the House or Senate bills address the automation of trucking. Both bills are also largely focused on vehicles with Level 3 autonomy and up, and, to some degree, preempt states from imposing their own restrictions.
Without explicit federal action, states and cities have been left in the driver’s seat. So far, 35 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation or signed executive orders defining and regulating the use of autonomous vehicles.
The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking each state’s policies and any newly introduced legislation. So far, the majority of states with autonomous vehicle legislation have focused on studying and testing requirements, but 15 states have passed laws on “platooning.” Platooning allows networked vehicles to closely travel in a convoy, braking and accelerating together, a practice particularly relevant for maximizing the efficiency of semi-trucks on a highway. Importantly, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have largely taken on advisory roles, releasing an annual guidance for both local officials and the industry. An updated version of the guidance, called 3.0, is expected to be released later this year, and will expand to other relevant modal administrations, specifically the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration.
Rubber, Meet Road
Though autonomous vehicles are still an emerging technology, they are already being tested in the United States (or preparing to be tested) in over 40 cities. The Alphabet-subsidiary Waymo announced in February that their autonomous fleet has traveled over 5 million miles on public roads across 25 cities and tested 5 billion miles in simulations. These tests and public operations are being conducted under a hodgepodge of state and local regulations, sometimes with widely different agreements in place on how and when the private operators share data with the public.
Despite the progress being made technologically and by leaders at the state and local levels, even if Congress can pass an autonomous vehicle bill, several challenges still lay ahead.
Public Opinion: Today, the majority of Americans are still skeptical of autonomous vehicles. Recent polls have shown that anywhere between 55 percent and 74 percent of Americans wouldn’t own, ride in, or trust an autonomous vehicle. Though these numbers are expected to change as autonomous vehicles become more common, there remains plenty of educating to be done and drivers to win over.
Safety and Testing: The level of testing required and the necessary safety and accident reporting, both before and during operation, is an ongoing debate. Consumer advocates have called for autonomous vehicles to pass the equivalent of a driver’s license examination, including vision tests and a graduated system before they can legally operate. Further, with the leading bills in Congress focused on the higher levels of autonomy, Level 2 automation (where the vehicle can accelerate, brake, and steer in limited conditions) is gathering increased attention from safety advocates and manufacturers as a potentially unregulated but fundamental component of self-driving technology. Several Level 2 vehicles are already available for purchase today. But, as a University of Michigan survey found, drivers of vehicles equipped with Level 2 features can be lulled into a false sense of security, causing them to neglect monitoring the road and potentially putting them at risk of otherwise avoidable accidents.
Similarly, when and how autonomous vehicle companies share data with local and federal officials is also a continued point of contention. So far, companies have been cooperative with public officials following any accidents. But establishing data sharing agreements around testing and general operations between the public and private partners has been an uphill battle. Increasingly, third-party initiatives like SharedStreets, Coord, and the Transportation Mobility Cloud are entering this space, promising to provide data sharing platforms that map where these technologies are being used.
Complicating the entire safety landscape are the overarching cybersecurity and privacy concerns. Given the data that must be collected, and the varying layers of technology that must be relied on for autonomous vehicles to function, the threat of individual or wide-scale hacking is immense. For the federal government, these issues are already weighing heavily on the minds of officials as they consider adopting regulations, and answering the outstanding questions of how autonomous safety technologies should be govern, which should become mandatory for car manufacturers, and when should any of this happen.
Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X): The FCC has reserved a spectrum band of radio waves for the auto industry since 1995. In 2017, the FCC confirmed that the 5.9 gigahertz band would be reserved for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. This highspeed band set-aside for autonomous vehicles is also prime real estate for a number of industries, including telecommunications, who are in the process of building up 5G networks. These 5G networks are estimated to be 10 times more efficient than 4G, which currently supports mobile technologies, with the capacity to process a high volume of data with practically no delay. If autonomous vehicles don’t move fast enough, they may lose direct access to their reserved band of spectrum.
Trucking: With Congress focused almost exclusively on commercial autonomous vehicles, the potential regulations on the trucking industry have gone unaddressed. With a scattering of states adopting platooning policies, allowing several semi-trucks to operate in close proximity in order to increase efficiency, there will be increased pressure on neighboring states to follow suit.
Physical Infrastructure: While autonomous vehicles promise to make driving safer, the condition of America’s physical infrastructure—the roads, bridges, and highways—continues to be a liability. In the simplest of applications, autonomous vehicles rely on clearly marked lanes and traffic signals. Upgrading the nation’s infrastructure to communicate directly to vehicles through vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) or V2X technology remains an expensive prospect. According to GAO estimates, upgrading each intersection with vehicle-to-infrastructure communications would currently cost an of average $51,650. Though these costs are challenging to estimate and are highly dependent on the exact system in question, with an estimate of over 300,000 signaled intersections in the United States, the back-of-the-envelope math would put the total cost of installing V2I nationwide at $15.5 billion.