The perception that government regulations are lagging behind evolving automated vehicle technology is a misconception, according to a panel of experts from different sides of the industry held at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show. And while the U.S. is a leader in developing the technology, a coordinated approach to policymaking is lacking, something not true in the rest of the world.
“What we are doing now is exploring the biggest shakeup if transport laws in a generation, which will enable new technologies and business models to emerge which will benefit society,” said Rachel McLean, undersecretary of state at the United Kingdom’s Department for Transport. “We believe that the technology must be viewed as one part of a broader revolution in mobility, if it is to be effectively regulated and integrated into the transport network.”
Even so, the federal government is actively developing regulations as well, said Finch Fulton, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing last year’s announcement at CES by former DOT Secretary Elaine Chao that 38 federal agencies are working on automated vehicle policy, while admitting that it’s very much a work in progress.
“There’s tons of work left to be done, including engaging with our international partners on the standards for the technologies that are being developed over time,” Fulton said.
Yet there are some rules already in place.
“Some observers claim that the U.S. lacks sufficient regulations for AVs; I can assure you that America’s federal and state regulators are extremely focused and active on AVs,” said David Quinalty, head of federal policy and government affairs for Waymo. “It’s a great sign for American competitiveness that the federal government and states like Arizona and California have been leading the world over the last several years on AV policy.”
Yet the challenge of crafting regulations stems from the differing approaches companies have when it comes to AV technology.
Consider Toyota, which is developing AVs along a two-prong approach, which the company dubs “Guardian” and “Chauffeur.” Guardian offers different levels of autonomy, much like the different driver-assistance features currently, or soon to be, available. Chauffeur is longer term, an automated solution with no driver in the vehicle.
Now consider Waymo, which is taking an approach similar to Toyota’s Chauffer vision. The company is building AVs that can handle ride hailing, trucking and local delivery, and is already regularly testing heavy-duty trucks between Dallas and Phoenix, as well as operating a fully autonomous ride-hailing service in Chandler, Arizona without any human operators in the vehicle.
“Fully autonomous driving isn’t the future, it’s here today,” said Waymo’s Quinalty. “And policymakers really need to be focused on this transformative technology.
“Because AV deployment is going to be gradual, policymakers actually have the rare opportunity right now, with a new technology, where they have the time they need to work on getting the policies right. As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to say, ‘Be quick, but don’t hurry.’ I think that’s good advice for when it comes to AV policy in the industry right now.”
And if it seems that government policy is slow in evolving there’s a reason: safety.
“We’re looking at the whole regulatory framework because we recognize that there is a whole concept here,” said the U.K.’s Maclean. “We may need to define in law of an entity that would be responsible, whether that’s the actual software or the vehicle itself, that it’s not the driver. That is where we need to go to logically with this whole idea of automated driving, that there’s something else other than the human operator is responsible.”
Stateside, it’s more of a hodgepodge, with different states taking different approaches when it comes to AVs, which will have to meet federal and state guidelines.
“We’ve talked in the past about the importance of harmonization across the U.S. You can’t engineer or in build vehicles for 50 different states,” said Jamie Boone, director of technology and innovation policy for Toyota North America. “You have to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and they don’t necessarily adapt well to new technologies and new innovations.”
Boone said the company has been working to advance federal AV legislation for the past four years, which passed in the House, but stalled in the Senate.
“The right legislation can absolutely be an accelerant for safe AV deployment and economic growth,” Quinalty said. “And that’s really where I think the industry really wants, to encourage Congress to look at ways to be able to foster this deployment.”