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Assessing Federal Regulations for Self-Driving Cars: House Bill Passed

By Dr. Lance B. Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

There is an ongoing debate about the role of government regulations regarding self-driving cars. At times, the debate is well measured. On other occasions, it is quite heated and accompanied by outbursts, finger pointing, and otherwise acrimonious behavior.

Whenever there is a new innovation, this same kind of debate takes place. In that sense, there is nothing unusual about a debate of this nature taking place. We should expect it to take place. One might say that it is the norm of the yin and yang that occurs for innovations and technology, involving society trying to wrestle with how to best cope with something new.

Often, the core of the debate comes down to socio-political beliefs. Depending upon your perspective about the purpose and role of government, you will tend to land on one side or another of the debate. It also depends on the stakes involved. If it is a high stakes innovation, the odds are that there will be greater polarization of viewpoints.

In the United States, we typically wrestle with these top-level contentions:

USA competitiveness

Pro. If the USA regulatory environment becomes overly restrictive on an innovation, this could mean that then the USA will fall behind other countries and so no longer remain competitive. Furthermore, the USA might lose out on being the first to market or not be considered the owner of the innovation, all of which imply that the USA will be second fiddle. This could suggest too that the USA is no longer innovative and have other repercussions internationally.

Con. The counter-argument to this is that if the USA allows an innovation to proceed unfettered it could allow for something that is dangerous to move into the marketplace. Perhaps in the haste to get to market first, safety will be compromised and the public will be endangered. The USA could not only suffer but also end-up releasing something amiss onto the world at large (this is the so-called Frankenstein model).

Both of the above positions have merit. It is hard at times to know which position is the “best” in a given circumstance. We can’t know the future and can only predict the future, thus, for any innovation, it is not clear cut how it is going to turn out.

With self-driving cars, there are those that are saying that the USA needs to be at the forefront of the advent of self-driving cars. This is then used to suggest that any regulatory restrictions need to be reined-in, or else the USA auto makers of self-driving cars will be suppressed in terms of moving forward or moving forward with rapidity.

On the other hand, clearly self-driving cars involve life-and-death matters. This is an innovation that will be on our roadways and has the potential to harm and kill. There’s no debating that aspect. Others though point out that self-driving cars will potentially save lives, emphasizing the number of car related deaths today and make the assumption that those deaths will no longer occur once self-driving cars are on the roads.

This aspect then takes us to the next top-level contention, the balance between federal regulations and state regulations.

Federal versus State regulations

Pro. Presumably, our USA system of government desires that the states have as much power over their efforts as feasible, countered by certain aspects for which the federal or collective viewpoint should at times override. For example, if every state enacts regulations that are disparate, it might make it very difficult for an innovation to take hold as it must somehow meet so many differing requirements. The federal role aids in ensuring that there is consistency across the board and a level playing field.

Con. States though need to presumably protect their own, and if they see an innovation in a different manner, they should have the ability to treat it in that manner. To what degree should the federal role intercede in that which a state sees as crucial to their state? This has been a tension for as long as the country has been in existence.

In terms of self-driving cars, currently there are 21 states that have to-date passed regulations pertaining to self-driving cars.  Here’s the list, shown in alphabetical order:  Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington D.C. Most of the remaining states are in the midst of considering or passing self-driving car regulations.

One argument is that these myriad of state-based regulations are a spotty patchwork of regulations that are unwieldy for those making self-driving cars. It is as though there are too many cooks in the kitchen. That’s part of the basis for the federal efforts toward creating self-driving car regulations.

There are those though that also are questioning whether the effort to craft federal self-driving car regulations are really doing so as a ploy instigated by the auto makers to try and override the states. There is concern that the federal regulations will be a watered-down version that allows for unsafe aspects of self-driving cars. It also raises once again the tension between state preferences and federal preferences.

This discussion and debate about self-driving has been ongoing for now several years.  The general public is not particularly aware of these debates since it has been pretty much occurring between the regulators, the auto makers, and special interest groups.  Recently, after months of discussion by the US House of Representatives, a new bill on self-driving cars was passed, and this now has widened the public attention to the topic.

Another bill is currently being considered in the Senate. At some point, assuming that there are indeed two bills created, there will need to be a resolving of the two and then have it land on the President’s desk. As such, it is still early to be predicting what the final bill will be, and whether or not it will ultimately become law. Nonetheless, it is useful to closely look at the House bill that was passed. I next provide passages verbatim from the bill, and provide commentary about it.

At the Cybernetic Self-Driving Car Institute, we are keeping close tabs on the state and federal regulations, and also analyzing what other countries are doing about regulating self-driving cars too. I’d say that all of us have a stake in the topic of self-driving cars, and as such, I am hopeful that the general public will become further engaged and contact their respective state and federal representatives to indicate input to these matters.  This is one of the biggest innovations of our times and will have a huge impact on economies, society, and how we live our lives. It’s important.

Section 1.

Excerpt: “This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act’’ or the ‘‘SELF DRIVE Act’’.”

You have to give credit to our regulators that they like to come up with catchy names for things. Here, they are calling the House bill the SELF DRIVE act, and did some reverse engineering to come up with the letters standing for Safely Ensuring Lives Future (SELF) and Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution (DRIVE). Does not roll off the tongue. Stilted. But anyway, we get the idea.

A rose is a rose by any other name.

Section 2.

Excerpt: “The purpose of this Act is to memorialize the Federal role in ensuring the safety of highly automated vehicles as it relates to design, construction, and performance, by encouraging the testing and deployment of such vehicles.”

This portion provides an indicated purpose for the bill.

Note that the wording refers to “highly automated vehicles” which is generally considered a preferred terminology over self-driving cars, and allows for a wider latitude of coverage of types of automated vehicles. Notice too that the life cycle of these vehicles is mentioned, which clarifies that the bill is not just about say the design, or just about the construction, but about all aspects of the life cycle.

Indeed, as worded, the bill is more so about the testing of and deployment of these vehicles, which some would say is wise to allow for less restrictions about how it comes to be (i.e., design, construction), and instead focus more so on what the end result will be (by doing testing and regulating deployment).  There are some though that believe the regulations should be more extensive and cover more overtly the upfront side of things (design and construction), which, presumably, would then lead to more likely safer vehicles as based on the endpoint of testing and deployment.

Section 3.

Excerpt: “No State or political subdivision of a State may maintain, enforce, prescribe, or continue in effect any law or regulation regarding the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems unless such law or regulation is identical to a standard prescribed under this chapter.”

This is a part of the bill that has drawn ire and caused heartburn for the states. It essentially says that the states nor any local regulatory body within a state can put in place their own self-driving car laws unless those laws are the same as the laws stated in this bill.  Welcome to the tension between the feds and the states.

Excerpt: “Nothing in this subsection may be construed to prohibit a State or a political subdivision of a State from maintaining, enforcing, prescribing, or continuing in effect any law or regulation regarding registration, licensing, driving education and training, insurance, law enforcement, crash investigations, safety and emissions inspections, congestion management of vehicles on the street within a State or political subdivision of a State, or traffic unless the law or regulation is an unreasonable restriction on the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems.”

In this passage, the federal regulation somewhat does a give-back to the states in terms of what is covered about self-driving cars from a state perspective. But, this is not entirely a full give-back and you can see that the wording of “…unless the law or regulation is an unreasonable restriction” is purposely included.

Expect to see a legal battle ensure between the states and the federal government on what the meaning of “unreasonable” is. Hope the courts are ready for this.

Section 4.

Excerpt: “Not later than 24 months after the date of the enactment of this section, the Secretary of Transportation shall issue a final rule requiring the submission of safety assessment certifications regarding how safety is being addressed by each entity developing a highly automated vehicle or an automated driving system. Such rule shall include: (A) a specification of which entities are required to submit such certifications; (B) a clear description of the relevant test results, data, and other contents required to be submitted by such entity, in order to demonstrate that such entity’s vehicles are likely maintain safety, and function as intended and contain fail safe features, to be included in such certifications; and (C) a specification of the circumstances under which such certifications are required to be updated or resubmitted.”

Here, this is an indication that the rules about attesting to safety are going to be derived over time and no later than two years from the enactment of this bill. Some would say that allowing for up to two years is a bit odd, given the fast pace of this innovation. The bill though does indicate what should happen in the interim, which provides some guidance, but there are some that believe that this not sufficient and we need to know sooner what the true final rules will be.

Section 8.

Excerpt: “Not later than 3 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall complete research to determine the most effective method and terminology for informing consumers for each highly automated vehicle or a vehicle that performs partial driving automation about the capabilities and limitations of that vehicle. The Secretary shall determine whether such information is based upon or includes the terminology as defined by SAE International in Recommended Practice Report J3016 (published September 20 2016) or whether such description should include alternative terminology.”

This passage has to do with making sure that consumers are aware of what they are getting when they buy a self-driving car. It is akin to how we now have auto makers letting us know how many miles per gallon the car will typically get. For self-driving cars, there are so many variations as to what a self-driving car is and has, it could be handy to have some kind of standards that are used and also that the consumer would need to be notified as to which of those standards the self-driving car abided to.

One criticism here is that the “not later than 3 years” might be letting the horses out of the barn, and that the time frame needs to be much sooner so as to ensure that there are standards in place before self-driving cars are being sold to consumers.

Section 12.

Excerpt: “A manufacturer may not sell, offer for sale, introduce or deliver for introduction in interstate commerce, or import into the United States, any highly automated vehicle, vehicle that performs partial driving automation, or automated driving system unless the manufacturer has developed a privacy plan that includes the following: (1) A written privacy plan with respect to the collection, use, sharing, and storage of information about vehicle owners or occupants collected by a highly automated vehicle, vehicle that performs partial driving automation, or automated driving system. Such policy shall include the following: (A) The practices of the manufacturer with respect to the way that information about vehicle owners or occupants is collected, used, shared, or stored. (B) The practices of the manufacturer with respect to the choices offered to vehicle owners or occupants regarding the collection, use, sharing, and storage of such information. (C) The practices of the manufacturer with respect to the data minimization, detection, and retention of information about vehicle owners or occupants. (D) The practices of the manufacturer with respect to extending its privacy plan to the entities it shares such information with. (2) A method for providing notice to vehicle owners or occupants about the privacy policy. (3) If information about vehicle owners or occupants is altered or combined so that the information can no longer reasonably be linked to the highly automated vehicle, vehicle that performs partial driving automation, or automated driving system from which the information is retrieved, the vehicle owner, or occupants, the manufacturer is not required to include the process or practices regarding that information in the privacy policy. (4) If information about an occupant is anonymized or encrypted the manufacturer is not required to include the process or practices regarding that information in the privacy policy.”

This passage is about privacy aspects for consumers. It is handy and especially since there are state regulations about self-driving cars that either don’t mention privacy as an explicit topic or just assume that other existing privacy laws will cover self-driving cars.  That being said, there are some that are not convinced that this privacy portion has enough teeth in it.

Other Aspects.

I am not going to walk you through all of the aspects of the bill, but encourage you to consider taking a look at it and getting further up-to-speed.

Some salient points of contention include:

  •        Appears to exempt auto makers from various safety standards that are not presumably applicable to self-driving cars and yet are applicable to traditional cars (this seems like a questionable carve out to many).
  •        Appears to provide overreaching authority to the federal government about self-driving cars by grabbing the design and performance, and denies the states their due, yet it does seem to still allow the states to decide if they want to permit self-driving cars to be on the roads in their state.
  •        Appears to allow to remain intact that the states can regulate the driver of a vehicle, but, in the case of self-driving cars, and if there is not a human driver, does that mean that the states then are no longer regulating the driver (human or AI), or does it mean that they could enact legislation that covers the AI that is driving the car (“the driver”).
  •        Is this bill too sweet for the auto makers? Some say so. Meanwhile, some auto makers say it doesn’t go far enough for their needs to proceed with rapidity toward self-driving cars. Is it onerous on the auto makers?
  •        Various consumer and safety groups say that it weakens safety considerations and opens the gate for auto makers to jam self-driving cars onto consumers with reckless abandon.  If so, we’ll see injuries and deaths from self-driving cars that might well kill-off the self-driving car momentum, besides also becoming a menace to society.
  •        There is concern expressed that the bill does not address commercial vehicles. Who and what is going to regulate those self-driving trucks and other such commercial vehicles?  They would seem to need regulations as much as do conventional self-driving cars.

Whether you agree or disagree with the contents of the House bill, it provides at least a place to start debating more widely and openly the issues surrounding the emergence of self-driving cars. We all have a stake in this high-stake game.

In the range from no regulations to onerous regulations, presumably we can find something within that spectrum that will achieve the advent of self-driving cars but do so without self-driving cars becoming killing machines that lack appropriate safety and security provisions.

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.

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