Innovators must speak out on U.S. DOT autonomous vehicle policy
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Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) released a broad series of rules and guidelines, signaling apparent government support for advancing life-saving autonomous vehicles.

The abstract said all the right things and at The Alliance for Transportation Innovation (ATI21.org) we joined other stakeholders in celebrating the document as a solution to our problems, but when we dug deeper, we discovered problems for our solutions.

While this policy provides much needed clarification and outlines some clear and welcome guidance, it does remarkably little to reform the fifty-year-old regulatory process, designed for a different era and completely incompatible with the current pace of innovation.

For example, the document still requires that autonomous vehicles must demonstrate compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). These standards include 286 references to human drivers and mandate traditional design features such as steering wheels, displays and pedals. Any fully self-driving vehicle would violate more than one-third of those standards, not to mention half of the Series 100 Crash Avoidance standards built into the compliance structure. 

This is 2016, not 1966 when the Highway Safety Act that laid out this governance process passed. Today, innovation cycles are measured in months but temporary exceptions can take a year or more and the rulemaking process will take considerably longer.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this “slow and easy wins the race” approach. This is big government and motor vehicle crashes are big business. The crash economy represents over a trillion dollars in annual economic activity. That’s a one with twelve zeros behind it and powerful lobbyists and special interests are committed to protecting those zeros. At the same time, Americans are dying at a staggering rate. Nearly 100 people per day are killed in motor vehicle accidents and 2016 is on track to set a record.

But here’s the bottom line: U.S. DOT acknowledges most of those crashes simply would not happen in a connected, self-driving vehicle world.

We need a 21st century regulatory approach. A few months ago, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxTo address America's crumbling infrastructure, follow Britain's lead Report: Chao has used government planes seven times this year Week ahead in tech: Lawmakers turn focus to self-driving cars MORE, a consistent advocate for vehicle safety, laid out a bold and innovative vision for self-driving that was intended to push the regulatory structure to embrace the technology. While it was clearly well-intentioned, this new policy, as it stands, will serve as an inhibitor rather than a facilitator.

It is time to break with the past. It is time to create an agile, responsive regulatory environment that advances innovation while protecting the public. Assessing the appropriateness of regulations that apply to self-driving vehicles cannot be the exclusive purview of lawyers and lobbyists. Government must assure that modern analytical methods and expertise in systems engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, telecommunications, data science, risk management, and cybersecurity be included in the design and execution of an appropriate regulatory structure.  

There is good news. The door is not shut and we can influence the outcome. The U.S. Department of Transportation has wisely presented this policy as a first step and seems genuinely open to making regulatory changes and developing new safety metrics that can be used to speed the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles while ensuring that they are appropriate to governing an information age transportation system. Now, it is time for innovators and visionaries to weigh in.

U.S. DOT has established a 60-day comment period for stakeholders to voice their concerns. At ATI21.org, we are calling on every stakeholder in the technology and transportation communities, to take advantage of this opportunity. We must help build a regulatory structure that will allow innovation to flourish. The stakes could not be higher in fact, it’s literally a matter of life and death as traffic crashes remain the leading cause of death among our youth. Every year we delay will mean, thousands of grieving parents. It means moms and dads won’t make it home for dinner.

For their sake, we cannot afford to lose this debate.

Paul Brubaker is the president and CEO of The Alliance for Transportation Innovation (ATI21.org) and is also the former administrator of U.S. DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration. 


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.