Nov 2, 2018

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Don't forget: “Axios on HBO” debuts this Sunday at 6:30pm. We'll have a ton of cool news and interviews over the next 4 weeks. You won’t want to miss it.

1 big thing: Breaking the AV logjam in Congress

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Federal legislation of autonomous vehicles remains stalled in Congress, but there’s a small chance it could be revived in a lame-duck session. If Democrats take the House on Tuesday, some industry lobbyists think the logjam could be broken by Senate Republicans, who may be more inclined to move ahead with a compromise bill than to start over with the new House.

Why it matters: Cars with increasing levels of autonomy are already being tested and deployed on American roads, and Waymo plans to launch the first fully automated robo-taxi service in Phoenix before the end of the year. How the technology develops in the coming decades may well depend on how politics plays out today.

Where it stands: More than a year ago, the House unanimously passed the SELF DRIVE Act, which would create a regulatory framework for highly automated vehicles.

  • A separate Senate bill — the AV START Act — was approved last November by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, but stalled out in the full Senate.

Self-driving technology continues to advance. Without federal standards, automakers and tech companies have to deal with a patchwork of state laws.

“While we're arguing over whether the AV START Act is exactly right, the world is moving ahead by leaps and bounds in areas like technology, automation and artificial intelligence.”
Shailen Bhatt, CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America

Yes, but: Senators on both sides of the aisle have legitimate concerns, not just about safety after recent accidents involving self-driving cars, but also about cybersecurity and the impact on jobs.

  • David Friedman, VP of advocacy at Consumer Reports and a former acting administrator of NHTSA, says strong regulations are needed to protect consumer privacy and to ensure disabled populations also get access to AVs.

To fill the gap, NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation have published a series of guidelines for automated driving systems. The most recent applies a “market-driven, technology-neutral” approach to AV regulation that is intended to “encourage innovation in the transportation system.”

"The goal of the Department is to keep pace with these rapidly evolving technologies so America remains a global leader in safe automation technology."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao

For now, the feds are encouraging AV companies to file voluntary safety assessment reports on a dozen key factors.

The bottom line: Until federal legislation is in place, these voluntary report cards — which seem more like glossy marketing exercises designed to build public trust — will have to guide government, industry and consumers.

Read more of the story here.

2. Legal risks of not having federal legislation

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In October, the DOT released its latest policy statement on AV technologies, which is broadly in line with past guidance. But if the DOT wants to “ensure safety without hampering innovation,” maintaining the status quo is not the correct approach, Michael Mallow and Rachel Straus of Sidley Austin LLP write for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Although some companies may worry about heavy-handed regulation curtailing the advancement of AV technology, the unknown risks of litigation and liability have the greatest potential to derail progress at this stage of development.

Details: The new DOT policy reiterates that state and local governments cannot set safety standards different from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. But there's still room for liability under state common law. Even if an automaker complies with the FMVSS, for example, a court could find that it caused harm to vehicle owners that would entitle them to compensation.

What's needed: Federal regulations for the design, data collection and communication systems of AVs would allow developers to understand, and plan for, their risks and liabilities.

The bottom line: Concrete federal regulations could provide safety, stability and certainty. Otherwise, a mishmash of state laws governing design defects, privacy and cybersecurity could inhibit innovation.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

3. Driving the conversation

I want to hear — and share — what you're reading about AVs. Send me a link to an article and your expert analysis of why it matters — joann.muller@axios.com.

Teaming Up: Ford and Volkswagen are in talks to create a self-driving car joint venture that would challenge Waymo and Tesla. (WSJWilliam Boston)

  • Why it matters: Distracted by other problems, both giant carmakers have fallen behind in AV development. A partnership would help them get back in the game while saving on R&D.

China's Baidu inks two more self-driving car deals with Ford and Volvo. (TechCrunch — Rita Liao)

  • The big picture: The giant search engine launched an open-source development program called Apollo to accelerate its AV efforts. Apollo has already attracted more than 100 partners, including blue chippers like Microsoft, Nvidia, Intel, Mercedes-Benz and NXP.

Three reasons why AVs are still a long way off. (Forbes — Neil Howe)

  • It's simple: The tech isn’t ready; the regulations aren’t ready; and the public isn’t ready.

GM is driving forward: CEO Mary Barra says GM is on track to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019. (The New York Times — Niraj Chokshi)

Infographic: Scoring the countries best prepared for AVs. (Forbes — Niall McCarthy)

4. Creating a universal safety framework

A Ford self-driving vehicle. Photo: Calla Kessler/The Washington Post via Getty Images

AV developers are pursuing different strategies and technologies — and making different claims, in different ways, about their systems. Those differences make it hard to compare vehicle safety across companies and evaluate the safety of AVs overall, Marjory Blumenthal at RAND writes for Axios.

Why it matters: The success of driverless vehicles will in large part depend on how safe the public perceives them to be. That involves creating trust between riders and vehicle manufacturers — and speaking the same language about safety.

Details: Companies report how many miles their test vehicles have driven, without disclosing what kinds of miles, how good or bad the weather, how dense the traffic, whether in daytime or at night and so on.

An overarching safety framework would help to assess where an AV is in its path from early development to deployment.

The key measurements could include:

  1. Infractions, tracking how often an AV violates traffic laws.
  2. Roadmanship, appraising whether an AV is safely navigating traffic by considering factors like the following distance it maintains and whether it seems prone to near misses with others on the road.
  3. Disengagements, counting when a human driver must take control of the vehicle. It is an imperfect measure though because drivers have different levels of risk aversion and receive different instructions from their companies.
  4. Crashes and injuries, counting actual consequences of accidents or other safety events using standardized guidance for how to rate severity.

What to watch: The DOT recently updated its guidance on AVs and called for the industry to voluntarily collaborate on safety standards and best practices.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

5. What I'm driving

Acura RDX's True Touchpad controls the high-mounted infotainment screen. Photo: Acura

This week’s ride is the Acura RDX, a compact luxury crossover that draws inspiration from Acura’s high-performance NSX sports car. There’s a lot to like about the RDX, but 2 technology features stand out:

1. A new touchpad on the center console to control the 10.2-inch infotainment screen, high atop the dash, close to the driver's natural line of sight.

  • Instead of dragging a cursor across the screen (which is next to impossible while driving) you just click the spot on the pad that corresponds to the function you want to control on the screen.
  • It takes a couple of days to get used to it. But with practice, it becomes intuitive and helps reduce driver distraction.
  • You can also use handwriting or voice commands to operate the system.
  • High-end versions come with a large color head-up display so all the information the driver needs is in the windshield.

2. Driver-assist technologies are standard: lane-keeping assist, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and a system called "road departure mitigation." The lane-keeping assist sometimes makes you feel like you're not alone, but at least you know you won't be driving into a ditch.

Joann Muller