Automated Vehicles Update: Big Feature at CES, California Rules Delayed, Georgia Cautious on Regulation

It’s been a few months since I last checked in on automated vehicles (AVs), commonly called driverless cars or autonomous vehicles. Below are some developments of note.

  • California misses operations and licensing rule deadline. When the California legislature passed its AV bill in 2012, it ordered that the state Department of Motor Vehicles fully implement it by the end of 2014. While the final rules on testing came into effect in September 2014, the agency announced in late December it would not meet the January 1 deadline to implement its AV operations and licensing rules. AV policy observers have been watching the California rollout closely, given that California is the largest state and a first mover, which means other states are likely to follow its lead. Unfortunately, California’s AV statute is proving burdensome for robocar innovators. As written, it requires that a licensed driver be in the driver seat with the ability to retake manual control at any point following a transition period. Some developers are seeking full automation, where there is no ability for drivers to take manual control. To meet the new California testing regulations, Google was recently forced to add a steering wheel to its latest prototype.
  • CES showcases vehicle automation. The annual Consumer Electronics Show just wrapped up in Las Vegas. Ford CEO Mark Fields delivered a keynote address discussing his company’s push toward vehicle automation, among other topics. Fields predicted the first generation of automated vehicles will be on the road within five years. My colleague Wayne Crews, who attended CES, worries that some of the AV policy discussions seem to be trending towards public utility–style common carrier regulation, under the unsupported assumption that AVs will be exclusively or even largely fleet vehicles, at least in the current way we tend to think about fleet vehicles. This would be a huge mistake. Brad Templeton, one of the most interesting thinkers on vehicle automation, also attended CES and offers his thoughts on the AVs showcased here, here, and here. Anyone interested in AVs should be sure to follow Brad’s blog for regular updates.
  • Holman Jenkins doesn’t get it. I often find Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins to be thoughtful about numerous issues. His latest column on AVs is an exception to the rule. Jenkins zeros in on some of the more pessimistic public statements from a couple of automakers, failing to note that Audi and Toyota executives’ public statements on AVs run counter to their large, secretive AV R&D operations. One of the more absurd Jenkins lines was this: “If the driver isn’t ready [to take manual control], reportedly the car will turn on its flashers and find a way quickly to bring itself to a stop. Is this not crazy, the equivalent of an airplane computer dumping the job of flying back in the pilot’s lap just at the moment when 10 things are going wrong at once?” No, Mr. Jenkins, because a partially automated vehicle safely exiting the roadway when its human driver is unable or unwilling to take manual control is nothing like an aircraft falling to the ground from 35,000 feet when its autopilot fails. To be sure, the transition period between manual human driving and automated driving is an incredibly important research topic for partially automated vehicles, one that has received a great deal of attention in public forums such as Transportation Research Board AV human factors workshops and far more attention behind the scenes within developers’ R&D programs. Even regulators have started looking at these issues. But identifying a challenge is not the same as identifying a flaw. Zero stars.
  • Georgia study recommends against new AV regulations. With the slow-motion AV regulatory train wreck continuing to unfold in California, some states appear to be looking at radically different approaches, such as the one I recommended last year in a CEI paper: rather than seeking to regulate AVs, lawmakers and regulators should be seeking to avoid new regulations and deregulate the automotive space. Earlier this week, a report commissioned by the Georgia House of Representatives recommended against new AV laws and regulations. The report is short, just 11 pages, but does a good job laying out the case against regulating for the sake of regulating. I’ll leave you with the conclusion, which is excellent: “Too often we want to rush action to show we are committed to a concept. This committee has shown its interest in the further development of autonomous vehicles in Georgia, but we hold firm in the belief that at this time any new regulations, definitions, or changes to our system would shock the market and cause delay in this exciting technology. To best promote the development of this technology in Georgia, we must continue on our path to provide a pro-business climate with low taxes and minimal regulation. We should continue our efforts to develop a highly skilled educated workforce with knowledge in the science and technology fields, and we must continue providing adequate funding to higher education facilities and research laboratories. Taking these steps will show the developers of autonomous vehicle technology that Georgia should be their destination for future development. At this time, these are the steps recommended by this committee.”