Some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley and the auto industry pleaded with government officials today to employ restraint in issuing regulations for self-driving cars. The meeting was the second of two public hearings on autonomous vehicles held by the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is set to issue guidelines later this year. The first hearing, which took place earlier this month in Washington, DC, featured a mix of voices for and against loose regulations that would more easily let Google and automakers deploy various levels of autonomy on public roads.
This time around, however, calls for fast and efficient deployment of the technology were near-unanimous. The support was aided in part by its surroundings. The hearing took place in a converted hanger at Stanford University's Center for Automated Research, just a quick car ride away from Google's main campus. And tech representatives, who were absent for the first hearing, now made their voices heard. While the tone shifted, the message remained mostly the same: autonomous cars are too important to screw up with bureaucracy.
The tone shifted, but the message remained the same
"The worst possible scenario for the growth of self-driving vehicles is an inconsistent patchwork of laws," said Robert Grant, the director of government relations for ride-hailing company Lyft. "Regulations are necessary, but regulatory restraint and consistently is equally important if we’re to allow this technology to reach its full potential." Many of the more than two dozen speakers — including automakers, consumer watchdogs, disability advocate groups, and technologists — echoed similar sentiments.
A more measured argument came from David Strickland, a former director for NHTSA who now heads up a pro-autonomous lobbying group for Google, Uber, Lyft, Ford, and Volvo. "In the six years since I’ve been working on automated driving, I’ve seen it develop from a novel research project to a robust technology development effort with a very near-term deployment horizon," he said early in the morning. "We are years, not decades, away from this becoming a reality for the American public."
In other words, this technology is going to happen whether the government likes it or not. Working together with Silicon Valley — and compromising to help alleviate the slow-moving processes of government — may be necessary to ensure it rolls out in the safest manner possible. The tension between autonomous proponents and regulators has grown in the last few years, even as testing on public roads has ramped up, due in part to automakers aligning themselves with tech companies. The central issue is how to provide a regulatory framework that is not overly burdensome while still taking into account the significant safety and ethical issues at hand. Now, NHTSA is caught between serving the needs of the public and making sure the enormous impacts of autonomous vehicles can be realized sooner rather than later.
There's reason to act fast, as automakers continue pushing out autonomous capabilities to existing vehicles with little oversight. When electric carmaker Tesla imbued its Model S sedan with some self-driving capabilities in an over-the-air software update, it did so by saying the new "Autopilot" mode was in beta. However, scary videos popped up online of drivers misusing the feature, and Tesla was forced to beef up the safety systems. It was an extreme example, but it's only a matter of time before Honda, GM, Mercedes, and other carmakers develop software with similar capabilities.
It's only a matter of time before every car is more autonomous
Car companies have remained more or less neutral in the debate, straddling both aisles of the regulatory argument to preserve past stances on safety. However, in the presence of their allies in the tech industry, auto maker representatives at the public hearing today shifted toward calls for regulatory restraint.
"We believe it’s best for NHTSA to wait to set performance requirements until this technology is in the market," said James Kuffner, the chief technology officer of the Toyota Research Institute. GM used its speaking opportunity to tout its partnership with Lyft. The company says its controlled ride-sharing projects will help everyday consumers engage with self-driving technology in the near-term.
One point of contention is the requirement of a human driver who can take control of the car at all times. The state of California is fighting Google at the moment over whether its self-driving car must have a steering wheel and pedals, as well as a licensed human ready to operate them if need be. Google wants its cars to be accessible to people with disabilities and the elderly, while government regulators fear a car that cannot be physically controlled by a human poses too great a risk. Some carmakers vocally agree with Google, including Ford, whose representative said "any prohibition on vehicles that can operate without a driver will be an inhibitor to the revolutionary opportunities [autonomous vehicles] provide."
Google is fighting to remove the steering wheel
John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, provided a prominent voice of dissent. He called the idea of letting people use a car without a steering wheel "not just foolhardy, but dangerous." Simpson, who routinely used the word "robot" to cast a distinct light on self-driving systems, says regulators should be concerned about the ethical choices involved in programming this type of software and tech companies' lack of transparency.
"I think some promoters of self-driving robot cars like Google may have forgotten what it is," Simpson said, holding up a detached steering wheel he handed to Google representatives after his testimony. "It remains an essential way for humans to intervene." Simpson calls for more publicly released data from Google's self-driving program, and for NHTSA officials to avoid letting tech companies dictate policy proposals.
Chris Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving program, countered shortly after in his testimony. "There must be a place in this conversation for people who are currently excluded from driving," he said. "These are the people who would benefit most." Urmson said more than 15 states have proposed bespoke laws that could create a regulatory nightmare for both automakers and interstate commerce. Google is asking NHTSA to definitively define what role states will play in the regulatory process.
"There must be a place in this conversation from people who are currently excluded from driving."
Urmson and Simpson's stances are well known, but NHTSA officials also heard passionate testimony from disability advocates throughout the day. "Keep in mind that a car that can operate in autonomous mode without driver intervention can make an incredible impact in people’s lives," said Susan Henderson, the director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. She evoked the early internet, which she says was designed exclusively for people without motor skill or vision impairments. Those shortcomings severely prevented people with disabilities from taking advantage of the internet for years, Henderson added. "Technology and policy can come together to make sure people with disabilities are not excluded."
How NHTSA proceeds from here depends largely on how fast it decides to act. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in January that his agency would issue its policy proposals within six months. The process is now open to public comment, and not just those with vested interests. NHTSA says any interested parties can participate in the debate before it drafts its model state policy, which spokesman Bryan Thomas says is on track to come out in July.