The Federal Government Must Act To Ensure That The Autonomous Vehicle Revolution Takes Place In The U.S.

The advent of autonomous vehicles is around the corner, and the economic and social benefits will be vast. The U.S. government must take action to ensure that the United States remains the global center for this transformative technology.

Much is at stake: If the federal government does not act, there is a very real risk that development of autonomous vehicles — one of the defining innovations of this generation and a potentially massive engine for economic growth — will take place in another part of the world.

The tremendous safety and convenience benefits of autonomous vehicles have been well-documented. Millions of lives can be saved: Last year, car accidents claimed 1.3 million lives worldwide and more than 30,000 in the United States, 90 percent of which were caused by human error. Morgan Stanley estimates that auto accidents are a $500 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy. For the elderly, the handicapped and those otherwise not able to drive themselves, autonomous vehicles offer life-changing mobility and freedom.

Beyond these first-order impacts, the spread of autonomous vehicles will spur dramatic innovation and economic activity as entire industries spring up around this new technology. Just as the rise of the personal computer led to the now-$300 billion semiconductor industry and the birth of world-leading American companies like Intel, autonomous vehicles will fuel the development of innovative new electronics components, like LiDAR and advanced computer chips, to power the cars.

Software firms will emerge to address the significant computing and cybersecurity demands that Internet-connected cars present. Media companies will pioneer lucrative new paradigms for generating and consuming content (and advertising) as individuals gain hundreds of additional hours of free time in their cars every year.

In an increasingly competitive global economy, it is critical that the United States take the lead in advancing this technology — and reaping the associated economic benefits.The Obama administration’s proposal, announced on Thursday, to invest $4 billion over 10 years to accelerate driverless car adoption is a huge step in the right direction (the plan still requires Congressional approval). It is critical that the federal government follow through on this commitment to promoting autonomous vehicle innovation. In particular, policymakers should take the following key steps.

Comprehensive set of regulations

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should issue a comprehensive set of regulations for autonomous vehicles, to be adopted uniformly across the 50 states. To date, the federal government has provided effectively no guidance to states about how to regulate this new form of transport. The result is an inconsistent and often restrictive patchwork of regulations from state to state. If it persists, this regulatory uncertainty will impede the commercialization of these vehicles and make the U.S. a less attractive place to innovate.

A helpful analogy for how this could work can be found in the government’s regulation of traffic signals. The U.S. Department of Transportation sets forth national standards for highway signs, road markers and other signals in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Each state must then adopt and implement these standards, with minor adaptations allowed. The outcome: Road signs look the same across the country and drivers can easily navigate from state to state.

In Thursday’s announcement, federal regulators indicated an intent to take action on this front within the next six months. This is an encouraging development. It is imperative that they do so in a clear, definitive and timely manner.

With or without a driver

In crafting these uniform regulations, the NHTSA should allow autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads with or without a driver. Regulations that require a human to remain ready to retake control of the vehicle at all times — like California’s recent proposal — largely defeat the technology’s benefits.

For instance, one promising application of autonomous technology is a driverless, shared fleet of vehicles that provides “mobility on demand” to a large population. Such a fleet could reduce congestion, fuel emissions and the cost of transport while empowering the handicapped and elderly. This model would be rendered impossible by regulations requiring a human driver, however, because cars could not shuttle from one passenger to the next on their own.

U.S. policymakers and innovators must work together to ensure that America leads the way with the transformative technology of tomorrow: autonomous vehicles.

More to the point, restrictions like this appear to offer no safety benefits anyway. Several years and millions of miles of testing have convincingly demonstrated that self-driving cars are safer and better able to follow road rules than are human-operated vehicles. As technology design expert Donald Norman has noted, scientific research shows that “people are incapable of monitoring something for long periods and then taking control when an emergency arises.”

Indeed, he argues that “the most dangerous kind of autonomous vehicles are those that require human monitoring.” By allowing autonomous vehicles to operate truly autonomously, regulators will ensure that the U.S. is an environment in which this technology can reach its full potential.

Ensure cities are ready

The federal government should work more closely with policymakers and innovators at the local level to ensure that America’s cities are ready for autonomous vehicles. The spread of autonomous vehicles will necessitate significant adjustments to cities’ layouts and infrastructure, and urban planning processes can take years.

Yet to date, only 6 percent of U.S. cities are even factoring autonomous technology into their long-term transportation plans. This must change. The Smart City Challenge, a program announced last month by the U.S. Department of Transportation to encourage U.S. cities to modernize their infrastructure, is a good start.

These actions are all the more urgent given that several other countries, aware of the tremendous economic and social promise of autonomous vehicles, are making a concerted effort to lure the industry to their own territories.

U.K. government officials have met with Google executives at least five times in the past two years to discuss building out an autonomous vehicle presence in their country. According to records of the meetings, U.K. officials “emphasized [their] desire to work with Google to ensure the U.K. stays ahead” in autonomous technology.

Perhaps more notably, Chinese technology giant Baidu (often called “the Google of China”) announced recently that it had successfully tested its first driverless car. Baidu has partnered with BMW to bring autonomous vehicles to market within the next few years.

Given the country’s political system, China’s government can enact a regulatory regime virtually instantaneously that is friendly to autonomous vehicle innovation and commercialization — and can devote immense resources to encouraging it. If U.S. regulators do not adopt policies that foster rather than hinder autonomous vehicle development, the epicenter of this technology may well soon shift from Silicon Valley and Detroit to China.

The vitality of the U.S. economy has long stemmed from our country’s unique ability to imagine and then commercialize “the next big thing” — from electricity to air travel, from the personal computer to the iPhone. U.S. policymakers and innovators must work together to ensure that America leads the way with the transformative technology of tomorrow: autonomous vehicles.