Opinion

Driverless Vehicles Are Here, But Policymakers Are Late To Respond

Kevin Gluba Executive Director, Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure
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With the recent announcement by Uber, the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company, that it will being using self-driving cars to carry passengers in Pittsburgh, the forecast for carrying people and cargo with autonomous vehicles could be heating up.

Rapid technological developments are now creating an imminent reality for autonomous transportation, in fact, Volkswagen, BMW, and General Motors, will be offering vehicles that operate autonomously when driven on highways by 2018. Similarly, Ford and Tesla have discussed the idea of self-driving vehicle fleets, which essentially allow vehicle owners to profit from their vehicle acting as an autonomous ridesharing device when it would otherwise be sitting idle in a garage.

In Tesla’s “Master Plan, Part Deux,” Elon Musk explains: “You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost…Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.”

While artificial intelligence providing for autonomous driving capacity may be arriving sooner than anticipated, the most important question remains whether this technology will be safe, and ultimately acceptable in the public policy arena. As is often the case, technological innovation is moving at a much faster pace than public policymakers can stomach.

At the state-level, regulation of ride-hailing services, let alone, driverless vehicles remain in its infancy, with only four states (Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan) and the District of Columbia having enacted legislation allowing for autonomously driven vehicles to be tested on public roadways, and Pennsylvania has not even considered laws governing autonomously driven vehicles.

Therein lies the genius of Uber’s Pittsburgh pilot project. Because Uber will have someone in the driver’s seat prepared to assume control if required, no change in law or regulation is necessary to test the safety and efficacy of Uber’s autonomous fleet. According to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official Kurt Myers, “current law under the vehicle code allows the operation of the motor vehicle as long as there is a driver in the driver’s seat.”

For autonomously driven vehicles – or vehicle fleets – to become a widely-adopted reality, companies looking to offer these services need to demonstrate to state and federal regulators, legislators, and the riding public that safety is their top priority. Building a reliable safety record will take time. A far larger number of autonomous vehicle miles travelled will be required to rack up sufficient data to demonstrate these vehicles are ready for prime time.

Uber was smart to create a pilot program allowing observation and data collection without facing the immediate risks associated with driverless vehicles. They were even smarter to offer these rides for free – asking riders to pay for the privilege of being a guinea pig could have soured the public on the effort before it began, but everyone likes a free ride. I suspect that if this pilot runs smoothly, Uber will expand testing to other municipalities with different demographics, i.e. population, layout, average ride length, and etc. allowing them to build a more comprehensive data set.

All states and municipalities will need to pay close attention to safety concerns, and how public sentiment responds to driverless ride-hailing in Pittsburgh. The success or failure of the Pittsburgh-Uber alliance will provide a concrete case study for every state legislature in the country as they face the safety and policy challenges that arise as this transition takes hold, or as they consider allowing similar pilots within their boundaries.

Among the challenges legislators and regulators will have to consider:

Software and data concerns with the threat of “hacking;”

Passenger and pedestrian safety;

Assigning liability in the case of an accident.

The technological reality of driverless vehicles is here, yet policymakers at the state and federal level have yet to respond to this latest challenge. All too often, business interests advocate for changes in law and regulation based upon the theory that constituents will benefit. By undertaking this endeavor, Uber is pushing the entire autonomous vehicle industry forward by showing policymakers concrete results – and presumably addressing any safety challenges observed during testing – before asking for permanent accommodations.

Kevin Gluba is Executive Director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, non-partisan, public policy research and advocacy organization.