How Policy Makers Should Approach Google’s Driverless Shuttles

Yesterday, Chris Urmson, director of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, wrote a post for the company blog describing Google’s newest prototype: fully automated vehicles that lack manual steering, accelerating, and braking functions:

It was inspiring to start with a blank sheet of paper and ask, “What should be different about this kind of vehicle?” We started with the most important thing: safety. They have sensors that remove blind spots, and they can detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, which is especially helpful on busy streets with lots of intersections. And we’ve capped the speed of these first vehicles at 25 mph. On the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it.

Here’s a short video of the prototype in action:

Google’s announcement of a low-speed, non-highway vehicle is not surprising. As Stanford Law’s Bryant Walker Smith noted last fall at The Volokh Conspiracy,

This incremental view, while correct for the kinds of cars and trucks we regularly see on our roads, risks missing or even thwarting a parallel development that holds significant promise and some peril: low-speed, low-mass, geographically restricted vehicles that are truly driverless. Automated shuttles that are capable of carrying passengers along predefined local routes at bicycle speeds are already here today. These smart carts are explicitly considered in SAE’s draft taxonomy but largely absent from other discussions. This is unfortunate.

Automated shuttles are particularly well-suited for business and university campuses, central business districts, airports, military bases, retirement communities, and transit feeder routes. As compared to conventional motor vehicles, these platforms may be more accessible to developers (credible or otherwise), more likely to be centrally managed and maintained, and able to deal with more situations by simply coming to a stop. Moreover, they foreshadow even smaller systems, like personal delivery robots, that may someday seek their share of the public roadways.

Public roadways, however, are not shared easily or happily, and automated shuttles will need to navigate a complex and probably uncertain legal environment.

Smith is right about the inherent complexities of integrating fully automated vehicles into the broader highway vehicle fleet. In addition, the “low-speed, low-mass, geographically restricted vehicles” Google has announced will test key technologies in far more controlled, and safer, environments before deploying them in highway vehicles.

But Google is not alone in this endeavor. Adriano Alessandrini of the University of Rome has been a leading proponent of these types of vehicles and is working on Europe’s CityMobil2 project to develop fully automated urban road vehicles. Such systems will likely prove to be far less costly than traditional mass transit, especially rail transit, and have the potential to provide far greater mobility benefits.

So, what’s the takeaway for policy makers? As I stress in my recent paper for CEI on automated vehicles and public policy, lawmakers and regulators should exercise extreme caution in defining automation technologies and functions. In the appendix, I included the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Model Resolution on Autonomous Vehicle Legislation and Regulation, which contains a whereas clause that reads:

WHEREAS, lawmakers and regulators should avoid crafting statutes or regulations regarding autonomous vehicles which fail to distinguish between highway and non-highway vehicles.

Products such as the Google driverless “carts” should not be subject to strict federal motor vehicle safety standards and states seeking to recognize the legality of autonomous vehicles should be sure to include legislative provisions that make this distinction. Applying a burdensome highway vehicle regulatory framework to low-speed fully automated shuttles risks retarding innovation in this space, which will translate into delays of fully automated highway vehicles — the technology that will allow people to drink too much and digitally hail a driverless taxi (or their own vehicle) to take them home.