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.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.