Back in 2013, Michigan legislators outlawed the use of automated cars by ordinary citizens. Only employees or others tapped by manufacturers could run the futuristic vehicles through the cradle of the American car industry.
But on Tuesday, the startlingly swift rise in self-driving technologies over the past two years prompted Michigan lawmakers to consider rethinking that ban. A report from state transportation officials, taken up at a hearing in Lansing, concluded that “this technology will soon be available for public use.”
“We would recommend legislation that would permit the operation of automated vehicles and vehicles equipped with automated technology by the public, with conditions if necessary, on public roads and right of way,” the transportation officials wrote.
On the same day, some 500 miles to the east, the U.S. Senate took up questions on what Congress should or shouldn’t be doing to advance the rollout of technologies being tested by Google, General Motors and a slew of other large and small companies and university researchers.
Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving car project, told members of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation committee that a mishmash of local regulations is emerging and “congressional action is needed to keep pace.”
“Twenty-three states have introduced 53 pieces of legislation that affect autonomous vehicles,” Urmson said. Without clear national policies, it “will be extremely impractical to operate an autonomous vehicle across state boundaries.”
In state capitals and on Capitol Hill, officials are scrambling to get ready for one of the biggest changes on American roadways since President Dwight D. Eisenhower oversaw the birth of the interstate highway system 60 years ago this summer.
Coinciding with that anniversary, the Obama administration has promised to release a set of national guidelines on automated cars by July.
With annual traffic deaths surpassing the grim 30,000 mark for years, administration officials are pushing for billions of dollars to speed the technology’s use and have talked up the promised safety benefits.
“For policymakers at all levels, the governing principle should be that technologies with proven, data-supported benefits that would make roads safer should be encouraged,” according to a 2016 policy update from U.S. transportation officials.
At Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Urmson called on Congress to give transportation secretary Anthony Foxx “targeted new authority to approve live-saving safety innovations.”
But some senators were pushing for Congress to instead impose minimum standards on the industry, particularly on questions of security and privacy.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) took a ride in a Tesla with autonomous features Tuesday morning, driving on a bridge over the Potomac River. He then let the car take control. “Look, Ma. No hands!” he recalled during the hearing. “These new vehicles are computers on wheels. It’s absolutely amazing what is happening.”
But he also pressed industry representatives on whether they would support his legislation requiring mandatory cybersecurity standards, including protecting “all access points in the car” with “reasonable measures” to detect, report and stop hacking attacks. He also wants privacy protections limiting and guarding any information collected on drivers. “We need enforceable rules of the road,” Markey said.
Mike Ableson, General Motors’ vice president for strategy, said his company has put together “Red Teams” to try to pierce the security of GM’s autonomous cars, and is helping lead a coordinated industry effort to fight cyberthreats. Speaking of the legislative proposals, he said, “We think a more flexible approach is appropriate.”
Urmson said Google is attacked regularly. “We have hundreds of people dedicated to cybersecurity and what we’ve learned through that is it’s a very dynamic space and it’s important to be able to adapt” to threats, he said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the committee chairman, emphasized to industry executives that they should not feel bound to accede to Markey’s approach.
“If we could reduce by any amount the number of fatalities we have on American roadways, that would be a remarkable accomplishment,” Thune said. “The sky seems to be the limit” on the upside to the technology, and Congress’s job is to make sure it is done safely.
Among the nettlesome issues that have emerged: Should a licensed driver be present and prepared to slam their foot on the brake pedal? Must there even be a brake pedal if the car is driving itself? What if the person in the vehicle is blind and cannot qualify for a license?
What if someone’s license was revoked because of multiple DUIs? Could they be ferried around in a driverless car if there is a chance they could take control?
Regulators are wrestling with those questions, and in Michigan, at least, officials have suggested waiting on some of them. But as the technology advances, according to the report from state transportation officials, “consideration should be given to permitting those with driving restrictions to take advantage of this new transportation technology.”