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If Google, Uber and others want self-driving cars, they need to work on regulations together

A lack of consistent and concise rules of the road will keep self-driving cars from reaching their potential anytime soon.

A Volkswagen “Sedric” self-driving automobile is presented at the 87th Geneva International Motor Show on March 6, 2017.
Harold Cunningham / Getty Images

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

I have the privilege of working with an American state (which shall remain nameless) on various issues related to tech in general and in education, broadband policy and, most recently, the need to develop its own autonomous-driving laws that would govern its roads in the future. All of the states will come under federal laws and policies for autonomous vehicles, but these laws will be mostly applied to interstates and other federal roads that the U.S. government might control within any state’s borders.

At the moment, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ellen Chao has the task of crafting the laws that will govern federal roads. With a large team helping her, she is working diligently to try and get an initial draft of sample rules and regulations in place as soon as possible. They need this draft in order to get feedback from all types of companies and citizens who will want and need to weigh in on any regulations in order to help the federal government create and fine-tune rules and regulations related to autonomous vehicles by the end of the decade.

All of the major automakers are lobbying the federal and state governments to be diligent in creating these laws as soon as possible, as these laws will impact how they design cars, and what types of extra guidance systems, cameras and sensors they will need to install in order to get on the road legally.

At least two major car companies want to have a fleet of self-driving cars on the streets in major cities by 2020, with a goal of actually selling autonomous vehicles to individual buyers in the 2022-2024 time frame. Uber and Google, if they have their way, would like to start rolling out their versions of these cars even sooner.

During the recent National Governors Association meeting with President Trump in Washington, D.C., all of the governors who attended the dinner with the president also had a side meeting with the Secretary of Transportation, who outlined portions of the government’s thinking on their autonomous vehicle strategy. She said their rules should be a starting point for every state to look to adopt when working on their own, more localized versions of state rules that will also need to be in place to complement the federal one, but at a more localized level.

But, while I was talking with various different state officials who are dealing with crafting their own laws for autonomous vehicles, they pointed out to me that, at the moment, a real conundrum for them lies in any final federal rules that will eventually make their way into law, and how those laws can be mirrored for state laws — they still need to have flexibility to create their own laws, even in competition with federal laws driven by Washington. As they pointed out, given things like terrain, weather and road conditions, as well as rural roads where even their own state laws are murky at times, trying to craft state regulations to accommodate these quirks as well as adhere to all federal guidelines when they come out makes their job of developing state laws governing autonomous vehicles even more difficult.

These discussions with officials I work with, as well as two other states whose officials I have been speaking to, points out the incredible amount of work that must take place before we can have the proper rules and regulations needed to govern self-driving vehicles in the future. In fact, when I suggest to these state officials that they will need to have their own laws in place by 2020 — a mere three years from now — they pretty much scoff at this suggestion. In fact, these officials are not even sure the federal rules and regulations can be in place by 2020 to meet the aggressive schedule of some automakers who want to have fleets of self-driving cars in major cities by then.

When I speak to officials at the city level, where they need to add cameras and sensors to things like traffic lights, street signs, etc., to communicate with self-driving vehicles when they approach intersections as part of a even more localized approached to crash-avoidance intelligence, the first question they ask me is, “Nice idea, but who will pay for that?” Besides adding new levels of technology and IT infrastructure to city roads and intersections, this added burden to make their streets smarter to deal with self-driving vehicles makes their heads spin.

I think we in tech get too caught up in the big picture of autonomous vehicles and their value and promise, and do not really understand the enormous complexities something like this adds to those who have to write the rules and regulations governing this new technology at the federal, state and local levels. It is going to take a great deal of planning and foresight of the people making this technology. They will have to understand what is needed and work very hard as soon as possible with regulators at all levels if they want to get their technology in place even in the next five years.

To that end, I really believe that Google, Uber, the automakers and others involved with creating self-driving cars need to come together and create a serious roadmap to be used at the federal, state and city levels that educates on how self-driving cars are created and what they can and can’t do. They also should lay out what type of rules of the road are needed for them to even launch the first generation of self-driving vehicles.

I know they are lobbying government officials now and providing some education, but from what I can tell, each of them is doing so only with their own agenda in mind. It would be in their best interests if they pool their efforts together and come up with what might be a set of first-generation rules that can be applied to “Fleet Use,” and then even more precise guidelines that can be in place by the time these companies want to start selling these cars to private citizens. If they want the help of the local cities in delivering even more sophisticated crash-avoidance cameras and sensors, they need to lay out at least a basic blueprint for how smart cities need to develop the proper smart signs, traffic lights, etc., and not make them try and figure this out for themselves.

While I can see how the technology for self-driving vehicles is advancing rapidly, and why those behind it would like to get these vehicles on the roads as early as possible, I am convinced it will be the regulatory issues at the federal, state and local levels that will slow this advancement down. If the folks behind this technology do not come together to help these government officials navigate these completely new waters when it comes to autonomous vehicles, it will be the lack of consistent and concise regulations for the rules of the road that will keep self-driving cars from reaching their potential anytime soon.

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981, and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others. Reach him @Bajarin.

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