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September 20 2016

Obama Administration Jumps in Driver’s Seat of Driverless Cars

Patrice L. Onwuka

Washington has made it clear that it will not lag behind developing technology for driverless, but plans regulations to get ahead of innovation.

The U.S. Transportation Department made it clear that it can and will be regulating autonomous cars. The agency released voluntary guidelines this week on self-driving cars and urged automakers to get on board with its plans to regulate any vehicles on the road that don’t have a driver in them.

The 15-point safety checklist for the design and development of self-driving vehicles includes testing, backup systems in case self-driving computers fail, measures to preserve passenger privacy, and recording and sharing data. They also plan a premarket approval system that will require automakers get the government’s permission before they roll out vehicles as well as the authority to recall semi- and fully autonomous cars if found to be unsafe. In addition, they’re pushing states to develop uniform policies and have opened the door for new regulations in the future.

As you can imagine, this new area of regulations will requires an expansion in the federal agency’s budget and staff.

President Obama previewed the aggressive stand in an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noting:

Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year. And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives.

Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. But we have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was reportedly even more hard lined on a conference call with reporters saying:

“As technology races forward, the government could sit back and play catch-up down the road,” he said. “Or we can keep pace with these developments, working to protect public safety while allowing innovation to flourish.”

“We will continue to retain an aggressive oversight approach to vehicle safety,” he said. “And we will not hesitate to use our recall authority if we have identified a defect that represents an unreasonable risk to safety.”

The expansion of federal authority into this area of transportation is one thing, but the regulatory battle the Obama Administration is setting up with state regulations is another major issue.

Washington claims it will only regulate the technology in self-driving vehicles, while states retain control over the drivers. Currently, states issue licenses to drivers, registers vehicles, and maintains standards on vehicles while the federal government focuses on auto safety such as seat belts, air bags, back up cameras, and recalls on defective vehicles. But it’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where conflicts arise between the federal government and states as the Washington Post poses:

Google is testing vehicles that have neither a steering wheel nor floor pedals. Is there a “driver” in that car for states to regulate, or is there just a manufacturer who should be regulated on the federal level?

“Part of what we’re doing with this policy is saying when the software is operating the vehicle, that is an area where we intend to regulate,” Foxx said. “When a human being is operating that vehicle, the conventional rules of state law would apply.”

To be clear, there already is some regulation at the state level although it’s varied depending the state’s openness to technology – some more embracing of new technology than others. We know Pittsburgh has laid out the welcome mat for self-driving cars, which is why Uber launched its first test vehicles their last week. Conversely, California, home to Silicon Valley, the epicenter of disruptive technology, has been far more restrictive of this emerging technology. Chicago has been far from welcoming too. A patchwork of states regulations is not an invitation for top-down federal command-and-control over the industry. States and localities should do what’s best for the industries and citizens in their jurisdictions rather than be forced into a one-size0-fits-all “solution.”

The technological revolution of the past decade has turned what some have dreamed of into everyday realities, indicating that the pace of innovation is faster than any bureaucrat can keep up with. The new federal rules do reportedly leave some flexibility for regulations to evolve with the evolution of technology. So the Obama Administration thinks that this pre-emptive strike will be enough to keep them a head of self-driving cars. Good luck with that.

Beyond autonomous cars, the Obama Administration is setting a precedent for Washington’s role in controlling emerging technology. They want to fight back against the idea of permission-less technology and the Wild Wild West environment that new industries spawn absent government. That is neither well-intentioned nor wise. Regulations put the brakes on innovation to slow down the development of better products and services that improve our lives. However, the pace and unpredictability of innovation can lead to drastic changes in how technology evolves leaving any concrete rules outdated before they are formally passed. That’s a good thing.

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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