Congress should take hands off the wheel of self-driving cars

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Manufacturers developing the self-driving cars of the future haven’t had the straightest regulatory road. States across the country each have pursued unique legislative and regulatory paths—to date, at least 60 bills of varying merit have been introduced—that could create a mess of conflicting requirements.

Partly in response to the industry’s cries of alarm, a bipartisan cross-section of congressional representatives appears ready to take action to bring regulatory certainty to the burgeoning field.

Sens. John ThuneR-S.D., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., announced their intention this week to introduce legislation to update federal motor vehicle safety standards that, for example, require vehicles to be equipped with steering wheels and brake pedals.

In the U.S. House, the Commerce Committee held a Feb. 14 hearing with witnesses drawn largely from the automotive industry—along with one apiece from the RAND Corp. and the ridesharing firm Lyft—on how to smooth the technology’s rapid deployment. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., summarized the task before Congress as figuring out how to allow innovation to unfold, while also preventing dangerous vehicles from being deployed on the nation’s roads.

But contrary to some lawmakers’ instincts, the best way to realize those twin outcomes isn’t through a prescriptive approach to regulation. In fact, as a matter of process, prescriptive regulation might be impossible without throwing the brakes on the technology altogether. There was consensus among the panel’s witnesses that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wouldn’t be able to formulate rules fast enough to beat self-driving cars to the roads.

What Congress could do instead is help create predictable rules that don’t inadvertently thwart future developments. Key to this is to stay “technology neutral” while articulating adaptive and flexible regulatory standards at the federal level to prevent a state-by-state patchwork of rules. That approach would allow advances in safety to be achieved through experience on the road, which in turn can help inform an evidence-based approach to standard setting.

It’s a foregone conclusion that self-driving vehicles won’t be perfect. No technology is. Eventually, it may be necessary to create some standards with which all autonomous-vehicle makers are expected to comply. But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, the best path to safety is through innovation and deployment. The alternative is to set standards totally divorced from evidence and experience. That will almost certainly be costlier, in terms of both blood and treasure, in the long run.

Though the NHTSA Federal Automated Vehicle Policy itself has issues worthy of revision, including a problematic mechanism whereby it foists safety standard compliance on the states, the current course, whereby NHTSA articulates performance expectations in a non-binding manner, is a sensible middle-of-the-road approach during this period of transition. Administrative guidance, unlike formal rulemaking or outright legislation, is capable of accommodating the sort of rapid developments that the technology is regularly undergoing. Further, because it is susceptible to frequent change, it also enables an ongoing dialogue between developers and regulators.

That Congress is now seriously considering what federal safety standards should be updated, and not simply looking to codify some form of rigid standard, is encouraging. One low-hanging fruit would be to expand NHTSA’s exemption authority to allow more test vehicles onto the roads. Affirming the federal government’s primacy with regard to vehicle-safety standards also bears serious consideration, particularly as states sprint through their legislative sessions.

Convincing legislators that safety means taking their hands off the wheel will remain a challenge – particularly as some inevitable incidents occur. But Congress’ initial inclination to remain circumspect about imposing unwarranted regulations is laudable given the potential safety, mobility, economic and environmental benefits that the technology holds.


Image by posteriori

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