The usual suspects in the autonomous vehicle race are joining forces, forming a coalition to usher self-driving cars onto America's roads. According to a report from Reuters, five companies shaping up to be major industry players — Google, Uber, Lyft, Ford, and Volvo — have created the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. At its helm as counsel and spokesperson will be David Strickland, who formerly led the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
"What people are looking for is clear rules of the road of what needs to be done for (autonomous) vehicles to be on the road," Strickland told Reuters, "Nobody wants to take a shortcut on this."
Shortcuts aside, it's likely that the assemblage of companies will want to keep their foot on the gas. And the major lobbying push is of some concern to several sources to the Guardian, such as Daniel Vega, a San Francisco-based accident and personal injury lawyer. “I’m worried a lobbying group would try to shield manufacturers and app designers over drivers,” Vega said. “When these programs fail, who’s responsible?” According to the Guardian, companies could shift that burden of responsibility from car makers to car owners.
So far, there have been some regulatory bumps, such as a California proposal insisting that self-driving cars have wheels, pedals, etc. — not to mention a driver who is license to use them — to which Google has voiced opposition. And then, there are victories: NHTSA agreed in February that the driving software guiding a Google car could be considered a driver under federal law, which Reuters calls "a major step toward winning approval for autonomous vehicles."
“Self-driving vehicle technology will make America’s roadways safer and less congested,” Strickland said in a statement. In 6.1 million crashes during the year 2014 on American roadways, 2.3 million people were injured and 32,675 were killed. That's led Fusion to argue, if perhaps rhetorically, that human drivers should be banned.
“The best path for this innovation is to have one clear set of federal standards, and the Coalition will work with policymakers to find the right solutions that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving vehicles.” Strickland concluded.
Avoiding a "patchwork" of state regulation in favor of a coherent national policy is also the stated goal of NHTSA. However, the greatly varying conditions on roads across 50 states might be a necessary consideration. As the self-driving car project director at Google, Chris Urmson said in a speech from March, "We imagine we are going to find places where the weather is good, where the roads are easy to drive — the technology might come there first. And then once we have confidence with that, we will move to more challenging locations."
That led IEEE Spectrum to speculate that the imminence of autonomous cars might be overstated. "How quickly can we get this into people's hands?" Urmson continued, "If you read the papers, you see maybe it's three years, maybe it's thirty years. And I am here to tell you that honestly, it's a bit of both."
Today at Stanford, NHTSA will hold the a public forum on self-driving car guidelines, which it expects to issue to states, lawmakers, and car companies in July. The event will include comments from car manufacturers and tech companies: Lobbyists, start your engines.