In a recent example of how the best intentions often lead to the worst policy, Massachusetts legislators are considering a bill that would tax autonomous vehicles based on the number of miles they drive. There any number of problems with the approach, not least that singling out autonomous vehicles for a usage-based tax would slow their adoption in Massachusetts and could have a chilling effect on their development elsewhere.

In coming up with this flawed proposal, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and state Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, shouldn’t be blamed too harshly. Autonomous vehicles represent a paradigm shift that will require bold new policies. Both legislators are striving to think outside of the box. However, their bill speaks to a larger problem – a failure to communicate.

In the current political environment, the inability to cultivate honest dialogue about important issues is a significant barrier to developing needed public policies. Well-meaning people of all political stripes too often are working in ideological silos. Encouragingly, the development and regulation of autonomous vehicles may prove a unique point of bipartisan interest and exchange.

Toward that end, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress—a nonprofit dedicated to serving as an honest broker between public-sector leaders, industry and the policy community— hosted a series of off-the-record roundtables in Washington, San Francisco and Seattle on the topic of autonomous vehicles. The roundtables brought together experts from various policy areas, who lent their time and insights to identify key themes and areas of concern that surround the development, deployment and regulation of self-driving cars.

CSPC now has issued a new report that stems from those roundtable discussion, and it could serve as a valuable resource for policymakers at both the state and federal levels. In fact, had the report been available to Farley-Bouvier and Lewis, they might have learned that voices from across the political spectrum agree that autonomous vehicles must not be disadvantaged compared to traditionally operated vehicles, because doing so will stifle and slow their adoption.

Another essential takeaway from the roundtable report is that policymakers and regulators must be careful not to discriminate among autonomous-vehicle developers based on their prior experience as vehicle manufacturers. To ensure the public is willing to adopt autonomous technology, it’s vital that the technology be safe. But the way to ensure the technology is safe is to see that it undergoes rigorous real-world testing. Preventing firms from testing their technology, simply because their legacy business is not focused on vehicle manufacturing, has no demonstrable safety benefit. Over the long term, it will hamper the competition that would otherwise lead to the best technologies.

The report also recommends that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration work to avoid a patchwork of standards. Sensible distinctions between state and federal authority will help state lawmakers better understand where they can play a constructive role. One way to accomplish that goal would be for NHTSA to affirm its Federal Automated Vehicle Policy and repudiate the confusing State Model Policy.

Working from a point of consensus, like the one represented in the CSPC’s report, is an antidote to the kind of legislation introduced in Massachusetts. As new challenges arise, the vital importance of dialogue will only grow.


Image by sarahjlewis