Why does the Rush to Driverless have to be at the Speed of Light?

The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:

In the rush to driverless, there are many questions that have not yet been answered especially when it comes to cybersecurity and auto privacy of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Representative Debbie Dingell (MI) recently told Bloomberg BNA, “I think every single member up here is worried about cybersecurity and privacy.”

And guess what…so is everyone outside of Washington.

Of course, everyone in Washington, lawmakers, automakers, tech companies, consumer and safety groups, all agree that a cybersecurity framework is needed but generally disagree that the government should establish the framework.

So, who then? The automakers and tech companies who only see dollar signs?

Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory spokesperson Missy Cummings recently told TheVerge.com, “Companies are pouring significant money into lobbying efforts for both sides, so I think we are seeing this influence in how quickly these bills are being pushed through.”

Even though cybersecurity and auto privacy is talked about at the federal level, allowing driverless car testing on public roads seems to be the primary focus currently due to this intense lobbying by automakers and tech companies. They want access so they can bring this technology to the market quickly and the cybersecurity/auto privacy issues will be worked out at more convenient time perhaps.

On July 27, the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved out of committee the bill called the SELF DRIVE ACT, which would exempt automakers’ self-driving vehicles from federal safety standards that human propelled cars currently need. Companies would be allowed exemptions on 25,000 vehicles the first year, 50,000 in year two and 100,000 in years four and five. No guarantees of course that this will become a law since the bill will not come up for a House vote until after the summer recess.

But doesn’t this bill allowing our nation’s highways, roads, and streets to be used as an AV testing playground seem a bit premature?

Nineteen states have already passed their own laws regulating AVs. States and local municipalities are responsible for enforcing traffic laws. Since 2014, the state of California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has been tasked with setting regulations and deployment of vehicles on the state’s highways. California has already issued 36 testing permits with about 200 AVs currently being tested in the state. A proactive state like California would lose local control under the Self Drive Act and would no longer be able to enact its own guidelines if the federal laws were put in place.

Who then would be in charge of making sure that all users of the road are safe? The new rules apparently rely on companies to certify that their AVs are safe. What does that certification look like? And who decides?

In the race to driverless, will states only be allowed to decide how to register autonomous vehicles, handle AV inspections and license driving passengers?  What if a local area or state does not want anything to do with AVs or want to wait until they have been deemed safe? Will they have that right to not allow driverless truck convoys speeding ahead overnight across their interstates?

The SELF DRIVE ACT will also allow for AV crash data to be self-reported every five years. The state of California already expects this crash data information every year from AV automakers which seems more prudent in the wake of the speed of driverless cars to market. Please remember, these companies are testing on public roads and shouldn’t the public have a right to know how safe these AVs really are since we are driving amongst them?

Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson said in a recent Forbes article, “Pre-empting the state’s ability to fill the void left by federal inaction leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all.”

Many officials both elected and lobbyists agree that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency charged with regulating AVs does not have the expertise or resources to handle AV cybersecurity.

Marc Schreiber of the Competitive Enterprise Institute said in recently, “I think it’s very naive of Congress to think they can just fix this with more legislation, especially charging an agency to do more, when it’s proven that the NHTSA can’t do what it’s supposed to be doing now.”

The Trump administration has not yet appointed a chair of the NHTSA.

Under the Obama administration in 2016, NHTSA and the US Department of Transportation defined 15 areas that manufacturers need to comply with when automakers put their AV creations on the road for testing or otherwise. That framework puts the NHTSA in the administrative role but without a department head nor little expertise in driverless cars, how can motorists feel safe while driving with driverless cars on the road?

Make no mistake, these AV automakers and tech companies are lobbying hard to bar states from imposing any new driverless car rules. A coalition of companies, (Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo, and Waymo) have formed an entirely new lobbying organization called Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets which is headed by former NHTSA administrator David Strickland.

No matter how we feel about driverless cars, to allow driverless cars to be tested on public roads at the whim of private companies is perhaps not the best strategy at this time. And since private companies will be reaping millions from this testing, why should the public have to pay for it?

And what about cybersecurity—just this week a new hack was discovered with connected cars and car washes which has the capability of hurting both the passengers inside the car as well as the car itself. What is being done to make sure that this does not happen (and other harmful connected car cyberattacks in the future) and can we be assured that the Feds can take care of threats like this? If not the Feds, then who?

A city in Denmark now uses Bluetooth sensors on streets which officials say allow them real time traffic information. Let’s take that one step further, your connected car now has Bluetooth, will that mean that your personal car can be tracked anywhere at any time by officialdom? Most motorists do not want to be tracked anywhere anytime…how can we push our voice on this?

With this headless rush into driverless, where are the guarantees that regular folks will be protected on the road, inside their vehicles and that their constitutional rights are not infringed upon?

Too many questions still but it seems we will just have to deal with this speed of light rush to driverless somehow.


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The NMA Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation.  The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions. 

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NMA’s Flipboard Magazine called Car of the Future—Over 50 stories are placed each month in this magazine devoted to the Car of the Future.  Stories featured include future car politics, industry news and thought pieces.

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