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Self-Driving Car Catch-22 and the Road to 5G

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 07, 2018

In the novel “Catch-22” from which the eponymous 1970 movie was made we learn of a fictional bureaucratic means by which the U.S. Air Force was able to keep bomber pilots (who might be going crazy) from successfully requesting a release from flying missions based on a medical evaluation. The rationale behind this supposed “catch” was that a pilot would be demonstrating his own sanity by asking to be relieved of this task.

In a similar way, European transport authorities seeking to foster autonomous vehicle development are grappling with longstanding transportation regulations that require the presence of a driver and the ability of the driver to take control of the vehicle. The regulations in question include parts of the Vienna Convention, the Geneva Convention and the UNECE’s WP.29.

Regulators throughout Europe are trying to thread this needle by allowing for the existence of automatic pilot systems but requiring the presence of a driver and the means for that driver to retake control of the vehicle. It is actually somewhat surprising that the EU has taken so long to address this question of driver presence and control because even mandated stability control systems represent precursors of driving automation but never triggered concern for changing the regulations.

The Catch-22 for vehicle autonomy arises as countries, such as Finland, introduce legislation allowing for robotic vehicles with remote control, meaning the vehicle must have a driver but the driver need not be present in the vehicle. One might say, in a twist on the Catch 22 concept, that you’d be crazy to deploy autonomous vehicles without remote control – but you’d be equally crazy to try to control robotic vehicles remotely.

Crazy though it sounds, this is precisely the scenario for which European autonomous vehicle contenders are preparing and which is likely to influence the process of modifying the extant regulations.

We already have some experience of this remote control scenario in the form of the infamous hack of an FCA Jeep two years ago by “ethical” hackers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller, both of whom now reportedly work for General Motors. Phantom Auto is touting this capability as a core value proposition for vehicle autonomy. And Nissan has indicated its plans to enable remote control of its self-driving vehicles.

It is a very real prospect and reveals the shortcomings of the current regulator regime and the limitations of regulators. There are two major challenges facing the transportation industry: autonomous driving and cybersecurity threats.

In both cases, the process of vehicle certification for roadworthiness is subverted by the inability of regulators to certify that vehicles are secure or to determine, with any degree of certainty, that an autonomous vehicle will function safely in all circumstances. But politicians abhor a regulatory vacuum so the U.S. Congress has passed the Self Drive Act – a piece of legislation with the broad support of the automotive industry but which has failed to gain sufficient support in the Senate.

The Self Drive Act would subvert U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards by providing exemptions for thousands of self-driving cars which might have no drivers and, indeed, no steering wheels or brake pedals. Safety advocates are perhaps understandably up in arms and seeking to block the legislation.

Generally speaking, in the U.S., car makers are granted the ability to self-certify their cars as meeting FMVSS requirements. In Europe, new cars must receive “type approval” from regulators before they are introduced to the market.

Autonomous vehicle developers in the U.S. have been able to skirt FMVSS standards by convincing individual states to allow for testing of autonomous vehicles. In the case of Waymo, the testing is evolving into actual service delivery of automated mobility.

The rub appears to be that autonomous vehicles cannot be sold to consumers without meeting FMVSS requirements – which include such things as steering wheels and brake pedals. This has created an amusing scenario where car makers – who appear to be determined to try to sell autonomous vehicles to consumers (an unlikely prospect) – are seeking the cover of the Self Drive Act while Waymo blithely pursues its business of offering transportation services with little or no interest in conveying ownership of its AVs to consumers. For Waymo, the Self Drive Act is irrelevant.

What can regulators do? It is impossible to certify the cybersecurity resilience of any car. A vehicle is only as secure as the last pen test it has survived. It is also impossible to certify the safe operation of an autonomous vehicle – dependent as it is on ever-evolving algorithms created within neural network black boxes.

Relying on remote control as a means to enable autonomous vehicle development does indeed seem crazy to me. But it seems equally crazy to have no provision for remote control or indeed to throw in the towel entirely on the idea of autonomous vehicles. 

There is a silver lining, though. Any remote control system will require a wireless connection with high bandwidth and low latency. If nothing else, the potential for controlling vehicles remotely is a huge motivator for rapid development and adoption of 5G wireless technology - which might actually spur wireless carriers to prioritize automotive applications.

These regulatory issues and more will be discussed tomorrow at the Future Networked Car Symposium taking place in conjunction with the Geneva Motor Show at the Palexpo. If you happen to be in Geneva, come join us and share your thoughts and theories.

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