The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

The Self-Driving Car Industry Goes to Washington

Google, Ford, Volvo, Uber and Lyft have just founded a self-driving car lobby to press for favorable treatment in Congress and the regulatory agencies

2 min read
The Self-Driving Car Industry Goes to Washington
Photo: Volvo Car Group

A bevy of robocar-oriented companies has founded a lobby—a move than provides the single clearest sign that the industry is maturing.

The lobby’s chief, David Strickland, would like all regulatory decisions to be coordinated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Strickland sure knows what to do: he’s a former administrator of NHTSA—and yet another example of Washington’s revolving door.

The lobby is called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, and it includes Google, Ford, Volvo, Uber and Lyft. It looks as if Google is the prime mover here. Yesterday, at a public hearing that NHTSA held at Stanford University, Google’s robocar chief Chris Urmson emphasized the importance of uniform regulations.

“Vehicle safety standards are not the expertise of the states,” Urmson said. “Expecting them to take on this role will only lead to inconsistent safety requirements that make it difficult for manufacturers, but more importantly won’t provide the public with the assurance that self-driving vehicles operating in different states are providing the appropriate level of safety.”

Of course, handing regulation to NHTSA would protect Google and the other big players from being shaken down by every jurisdiction in the land. Particularly California.

Another interest the lobby seems likely to pursue is the shifting of accident liability from the robocar vendor to the driver (or the person formerly known as the driver). It’s a critical problem.

Say a human driver is confronted with a sudden problem, swerves to avoid it, but ends up causing another problem. A jury might well forgive him; after all, he’s only human. But if a self-driving car does the same thing, its programmed-in set of priorities can be dissected by a lawyer and made to seem cruel or arbitrary. And a jury might be inclined to shower money on a sympathetic plaintiff if it knows that the money would come from a faceless, deep-pocketed company.

It’s a legitimate argument, but one that Strickland may be able to make more effectively than, say, Urmson could. It’s just one more reason for the industry to outsource the job to a common lobbying group.

Google learned the importance of lobbying by observing the antitrust troubles that Microsoft endured after it had scanted such efforts to curry favor with government. Microsoft took time to mature—Google was born old.

The Conversation (0)

Chinese Joint Venture Will Begin Mass-Producing an Autonomous Electric Car

With the Robo-01, Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely aim for a fully self-driving car

4 min read
A black car sits against a white backdrop decorated with Chinese writing. The car’s doors are open, like a butterfly’s wings. Two charging stations are on the car’s left; two men stand on the right.

The Robo-01 autonomous electric car shows off its butterfly doors at a reveal to the media in Beijing, in June 2022.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters/Alamy

In October, a startup called Jidu Automotive, backed by Chinese AI giant Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely, officially released an autonomous electric car, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition. In 2023, the car will go on sale.

At roughly US $55,000, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition is a limited edition, cobranded with China’s Lunar Exploration Project. It has two lidars, a 5-millimeter-range radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and 12 high-definition cameras. It is the first vehicle to offer on-board, AI-assisted voice recognition, with voice response speeds within 700 milliseconds, thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8295 chip.

Keep Reading ↓Show less