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Self-Driving Cars: Regulating the Technological Frontier

November 21, 2016
Technological advancement in the self driving car space is advancing rapidly. Yet, the laws that govern this technology are intentionally vague. Autonomous vehicles have the power to radically transform our way of life, making our transportation safer and dramatically more efficient. What policies will be enacted to effectively govern these changes?

By Kavi Munjal

Tell the chauffeur to hit the road. On October 19, Tesla Motors announced that all cars produced at its factory in California will now be equipped with the hardware necessary for fully autonomous driving. The self-driving system will not be activated until further testing has been completed, but nevertheless, there is an automobile manufacturer that will now produce all of its vehicles with complete self-driving capability. This is significant news, but it raises even bigger questions about the future of the rules of the road. The advent of self driving cars demands perplexing questions of engineers and legislators alike. What is the role of government in regulating self driving cars? What new infrastructure will be necessary to accommodate autonomous vehicles? What moral questions will self driving vehicles encounter and how will we respond as a society?

The Government

In Washington D.C., federal regulators are already hard at work on guidelines for self-driving vehicles. In September, the Department of Transportation released the first edition of the guidelines, which targeted four main areas:

  • First and foremost, a 15-point safety standard for the design and development of autonomous vehicles; this is the aspect that the government will stress most, covering the car’s behavior in the event of failure and the digital security of the data collected by the car.
  • Second, the guidelines clarified the application of current regulation to driverless cars.
  • The other two areas simply delegate responsibility to states to come up with uniform policies applying to driverless cars, and leave open the possibility of new regulations. Some states have already acted upon this responsibility, instituting regulations for the testing of driverless cars within their borders. [1]

There are two major takeaways from the guidelines coming out of Washington. First, that these guidelines are just that—guidelines. They are not official regulations, and while they will likely be adhered to by all producers, companies can choose not to adhere to them and remain well within the law. This leads to the second takeaway: the regulation of self-driving vehicles has been left vague for a reason. The government is fully invested in research and development of driverless cars. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed the allocation of about $4 billion in the federal budget for this cause over the next ten years [2], while saying that his policy on self-driving vehicles would be “flexible and designed to evolve with new advances”. The government believes that fully autonomous vehicles will make the road a safer place, and it is giving innovators at companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber the regulatory ambiguity to make that happen.

The Road

The road may become a safer place, but whether or not that road itself will be changed is up for debate. Dr. Jerry Kaplan, a fellow at the Center for Legal Informatics at Stanford University, writes that driverless vehicles will only realize their full potential when they are “no longer limited by the slow gait of horses”. Kaplan conveys that a fully autonomous vehicle on a road full of human-driven cars will not be able to operate at full efficiency, and it is hard to argue otherwise. A human driver needs to check both ways at a stop sign, drive very slowly in pedestrian areas, and overall drive at a speed where his brain can process the events occurring around him. The driverless car can process these events much, much faster. So why wait behind a human driver?

 

Autonomous vehicle save gasoline wasteAutonomous vehicle save gasoline waste

In the near future, we could, and should, very well see the creation of roads—at the very least, lanes—devoted to driverless vehicles. We will also see the road become yet another home to the internet of things. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communicators will be mandated by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, allowing vehicles to broadcast data such as speed, turning signal, and braking to anything with the capacity to listen for a radius of 300 meters. As our cars begin to talk to each other, they will be able to make quicker, more interdependent decisions to make us not only more safe, but also relentlessly more efficient.

The Ethics

The moral decision-making of the driverless car is perhaps the most intriguing, and controversial aspect of the revolution. In philosophy, we have been debating it for years. The age-old trolley problem, where one must decide between letting a train strike multiple people or diverting the train towards a single other person. The dilemma bears striking relevance to the future of automotive decision-making. If a driverless car must decide between hitting a group of pedestrians or swerving into a light pole, which does it choose? In a survey published in Science, 76% of 182 participants responded that minimizing the death toll is most important. The issue that then arises, however, is the difficulty of selling a vehicle that is programmed to sacrifice its occupants.[3]

While the actual probability of an unavoidable accident dramatically decreases as the number of driverless vehicles on the road increase, there is a definite moral dilemma that lies in the hands of the engineers of the automotive industry, as well as the hands of the government. Who is responsible for regulating the algorithmic decision of a fully autonomous vehicle? The government would be hesitant to mandate a hierarchy for the value of life on the road. Maybe, like insurance, the buyer could purchase or select a certain algorithm to protect the driver, or any children in the vehicle, or the pedestrian, or some mixture of both. Maybe some would rather prefer the algorithm to be chosen randomly. [4] And similarly, who is responsible for the actions of that algorithm? A police officer would be hard-pressed to hand out a ticket to a person who isn’t driving the car.

The Future

The future of the road holds amazing promise for society as a whole. As with every revolution, the driverless car can make us more safe and efficient than ever before. Driverless cars have the power to change not just transportation, but our relationship to physical proximity, leaving in their wake dramatic shifts in commerce and policy. But every revolution must be accommodated, regulated, and even normatively judged. As self-driving vehicles hit the road, it is up to policy makers to work with the industry to ascertain these policies reflect the desires and values of the public. Those rules have yet to be written. As the progress of technology marches on, government regulators will be tasked with writing them, and the consequences of those decisions will affect us all.

References

   [1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/20/technology/self-driving-cars-guidelines.htm

  [2] http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2016/09/19/Barack-Obama-Self-driving-yes-but-also-safe/stories/201609200027

  [3] http://www.wsj.com/articles/with-driverless-cars-buyers-would-choose-own-safety-over-the-masses-1466704803

  [4] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/542626/why-self-driving-cars-must-be-programmed-to-kill/

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