The Biggest Hurdle for Self-Driving Cars: Congress

Engineers are meeting the technical challenges needed to turn today’s cars into the stuff of science fiction, but lawmakers are making little progress in updating the rules of the road.

If sci-fi cars are to ever hit the road, it will take some federal action.
National Journal
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Alex Brown
Jan. 27, 2014, midnight

Ro­bot cars are com­ing.

Last year, Audi’s auto­pi­loted concept car needed the spa­cious rear end of a sta­tion wag­on to house its com­puter brain. This year’s mod­el uses hard­ware that’s the size of an iPad and gets hid­den be­hind a pan­el in the trunk.

Many com­pon­ents of self-driv­ing are at or near com­mer­cial read­i­ness — free­way con­trol, traffic-jam hand­ling, and auto-park­ing among them.

But while en­gin­eers speed to­ward road-ready fu­ture cars, it’s un­clear that the rules of the road will be ready when the cars are. Politi­cians have made min­im­al pro­gress in up­dat­ing the le­gis­la­tion and reg­u­la­tions needed for the cars, which re­main out­dated and mad­den­ingly in­con­sist­ent.

So what would Con­gress have to do to fa­cil­it­ate cars that could drive their pas­sen­gers around?

“Clearly, in or­der for this tech­no­logy to have broad po­ten­tial, it would re­quire some sort of uni­form­ity

[in reg­u­la­tion],” said BMW’s Dave Buch­ko.

But Con­gress doesn’t ap­pear to be in a hurry to give auto­makers those guidelines — or even get star­ted on them.

“Autonom­ous cars and the fu­ture of autos is a top­ic that our mem­bers are in­ter­ested in and work­ing on, but right now it is still pre­ma­ture to dis­cuss plans for reg­u­la­tion,” said Char­lotte Baker, a spokes­wo­man for House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man Fred Up­ton.

At the mo­ment, just four states and the Dis­trict of Columbia al­low any op­er­a­tion of driver­less cars. The rules vary widely. In Nevada, for ex­ample, op­er­at­ors can use their cell phones while the car drives them around. Michigan, on the oth­er hand, only al­lows man­u­fac­turer test­ing in very con­trolled cir­cum­stances for the time be­ing.

Chris At­tard, a Ford re­search en­gin­eer who works in Dear­born, Mich., ac­know­ledges that the policy in­con­sist­ency could be a dif­fi­culty. “[Reg­u­la­tion] shapes how we ap­proach the prob­lems; it shapes what the fi­nal im­ple­ment­a­tion will be and what we do with it,” he said. “There has to be that hand­shake between gov­ern­ment and private in­dustry on this.”

But for reg­u­lat­ors and le­gis­lat­ors to ef­fect­ively craft guidelines, they have to un­der­stand what today’s autonom­ous cars can and can’t do.

Auto­makers shake their heads at the per­cep­tion that ro­bot-mo­biles will soon al­low you to nap in the back­seat or watch a movie while the car nav­ig­ates your daily com­mute. To a per­son, the car people say they’re not about to rob you of the fun of driv­ing — they just want to get rid of the bor­ing parts. “We all love coun­try roads,” said Greg Stevens, who heads Ford’s driver as­sist­ance and safety pro­grams. “[But] there are as­pects of driv­ing that are not that much fun.”

For in­stance, some cars are on the verge of be­ing able to handle the bulk of a long road trip. “Free­way [driv­ing] is pretty easy to ac­com­plish,” said Audi’s Brad Stertz said. “Every­body’s go­ing the same dir­ec­tion, there’s a little weav­ing, but you don’t have cars back­ing out of drive­ways, or kids and dogs run­ning across the street.” Still, even in autonom­ous mode, the cars will re­quire drivers to be alert and ready to take over at any time.

Already in Europe, some BMW drivers are tak­ing ad­vant­age of Traffic Jam As­sist­ant, which con­trols car speed and steer­ing in some slow-driv­ing situ­ations. But thanks to a lack of U.S. policy, that fea­ture is not avail­able for Amer­ic­an con­sumers.

An­oth­er ad­vance­ment, an­nounced last week by Ford, is a part­ner­ship with Stan­ford to help vehicles learn how to man­euver to in­crease their vis­ion. Much like a driver would gradu­ally steer to­ward the cen­ter line to see around a large truck, autonom­ous cars need to be in po­s­i­tion to best make use of their sensors. “We want the vehicle to be aware and to do the kind of things that hu­mans would do, which is to take a peek around this side, take a peek around that side, see what’s up ahead,” Stevens said.

Cars are also be­com­ing more aware of their drivers. Buch­ko talks of cars that will be able to “in­ter­vene in emer­gency situ­ations,” pulling safely to the side and alert­ing emer­gency per­son­nel if the driver passes out or has a heart at­tack.

Park­ing, too, could be mostly left to the car. “You pull up to a sport­ing event or work, and you’ve re­served a spot,” Stertz said. “The car knows it and goes and parks it­self [after it] drops you off at the front. That could be a huge thing at a Red­skins game, right?”

Map depicting the states that have passed, blocked, or are still deciding on autonomous-car regulations. National Journal

Most of these ad­vances are ready now or will be soon. Fully autonom­ous cars, cap­able of driv­ing from des­tin­a­tion to des­tin­a­tion without hu­man in­put, are still far off. How far off de­pends on whom you ask, but the tech­no­logy has come a long way in a short peri­od of time. “Three or four years ago, some of the stuff we’re talk­ing about today people would have con­sidered as fairly far-fetched,” Stevens said.

But for en­gin­eers to make to­mor­row’s cars a real­ity — and to make the most of the ad­vances avail­able today — they’ll need some dir­ec­tion from Con­gress. “It re­quires the de­vel­op­ment of tech­no­logy as well as the reg­u­lat­ory en­vir­on­ment to make this stuff hap­pen,” Buch­ko said.

The real ques­tion, ad­ded Stertz, is not the tech­no­lo­gic­al as­pect, but “what’s go­ing to hap­pen in … the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and in the states to open it up. Is there go­ing to be con­sist­ency?” To be clear, auto­makers aren’t rush­ing to join the “bash Con­gress” crowd. “It’s not a case of blam­ing, be­cause it’s all new to every­body,” Stertz went on. But for en­gin­eers to move for­ward ef­fect­ively, they’ll need “un­der­stand­ing [of] where the gov­ern­ment is go­ing to come down on what it will al­low.”

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