Will You Take a Driverless Car in 2019?

By Chenchen Zhang

It is September 2019. The day is unusually hot for California. You have exhausted yourself working and now you are about to come home. You can readily order a driverless car on your phone. It has a superior safety standard, others will not know your route, and you can sit there watching the latest episode of your favorite show without having to pay attention to the road at all. Will you take it?   

This might sound like a daydream, but it can be true in light of a recent legislative move. On September 6th, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that, if passed by the Senate, would lay out a federal framework for self-driving vehicle regulation. Will this SELF DRIVE Act potentially accelerate the development of the self-driving cars industry, or even reshape our entire transportation system?

What Does it Say?

The bill highlights the principle of preemption in the federal role regarding “the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems”. A State, however, can continue to keep its standard as long as it is identical to its federal counterpart or “impos[es] a higher performance requirement”.

Source: NCSL, National Conference of State Legislatures

A more eye-catching part of this bill deals with the manufacturer exemption. The bill, if passed, would grant each manufacturer exemptions to test and deploy up to 25,000 automated vehicles without meeting current auto safety standards in the first year, with the cap increasing to 50,000 in the second year. For the third and fourth year, the cap would increase to 100,000 vehicles.

The bill also emphasizes cybersecurity and privacy. It requires that the manufacturers develop a sophisticated cybersecurity plan for detecting and responding to cyber attacks. As for consumers’ privacy, the manufacturers will have to devise a privacy plan explaining how they will collect, use, share, and store consumers’ data.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will have the power to regulate these requirements, and it would have to issue the final safety standards within 24 months after the bill becomes law. The bill also mandates establishment of an advisory council, of which the members shall include a diverse group consisting of researchers, safety and consumer advocates, engineers, labor organizations, and environmental experts. This council will collect information and give recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation regarding a series of issues such as mobility access for the disabled community, labor and employment issues and environmental impacts.

Who’s Celebrating?

It would not be surprising if the tech industry, which has traditionally been averse to regulation in general, supports this bill. In the absence of federal regulation, 50 states now have different rules and policies with regard to the testing, deploying, licensing, and privacy protection of automobiles, and this regulatory fragmentation can be a headache for manufacturers. For example, Michigan has the most permissive self-driving car legislation, which allows tests of driverless vehicles without human control, yet California is currently requiring a human in the driver’s seat. However, this bill stipulates that state-by-state rules be superseded by federal rules, a welcomed reform for those automakers who want to to test (and sell) their vehicles across the US.

The exemption set out by the bill also facilitates the autonomous vehicles’ testing. Currently, in states which have legalized autonomous vehicles, an entity has to apply for a permit or certificate in order to test vehicles on the road. For example, in California, an entity will need to apply for Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit from the DMV. And that is only half of the story. The permit can be limited to certain vehicles of the entity: Uber’s permit in California only applies to its two 2017 Volvo XC90s and 48 specifically named drivers. This is very restrictive. With the new legislation, the lenient exemption clause will grant manufacturer’s much more freedom to test a wider range of their vehicles.

The bill also addresses consumers’ concern of privacy and data vulnerabilities. Autonomous vehicles need to collect data from users in order to function. And in some sense, users will have to compromise some of their privacy to get better user experience. Imagine this: you might have to label a restaurant as your “favorite” so that the car can prioritize the route passing by that restaurant when you happen to be around and looking for a place to dine. This is similar to the scenario when you get Amazon suggestions based on your previous orders. But it is one thing for Amazon to suggest products to you based on your previous orders—it is quite another if Amazon sells your shopping history or even accidentally leaked it. Even though some would argue that essentially both examples are convenience at the cost of surveillance, the former is acceptable to most citizens while the latter would almost always be deemed as infringing one’s privacy. We do not want the manufacturer of autonomous vehicles to sell our routes back home or allow them to be hacked. Fortunately, this bill says a lot about how manufacturers should develop their privacy policies.  

Critic’s Concerns

Needless to say, there are complaints and worries. Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocating for consumer interests, expressed their concern about inadequate safety protections. Another concern is that it may still be too early to impose detailed regulations, since there are not many vehicles to regulate yet. A clear rebuttal is that self-driving technology is galloping so fast that regulation will indeed be needed soon. Based on that, some complain that the 2-year grace period for NHTSA is just too long.

The self-driving industry has the potential to reshape our current transportation system. To achieve that broad vision, which includes helping elderly people or people with disabilities travel more easily in their daily lives, this nation needs to address key policy concerns. With the self-driving industry developing so rapidly, the rules have to be adaptive and flexible. Will this bill gain approval at the Senate? Will you take a driverless car in 2019? Let’s see.

Chenchen Zhang is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.