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Volvo Wants U.S. Help with Autonomous Vehicle Leadership

by Roger Lanctot | 10月 08, 2015

One of the more curious aspects of the onset of autonomous vehicles is the widespread suggestion that special driver’s licenses will be required. The idea of a special driver’s license for drivers of autonomous vehicles seems counter-intuitive considering that much of the time the car is supposed to be driving itself.

This debate comes to mind in the context of Volvo Cars President and CEO Håkan Samuelsson’s plans to urge the U.S. government to establish nationwide Federal guidelines for autonomous driving in order for the U.S. to preserve its leadership in the emerging autonomous driving industry. Samuelson intends to share his thoughts in a talk at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, DC, later today.

Samuelson is concerned that the U.S., like Europe, might inhibit autonomous vehicle development if development of self-driving cars is disrupted by “a patchwork of varying state laws and regulations,” according to a press release announcing Samuelson’s talk. Samuelson wants to see a national framework for regulation and testing.

To date, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has only gone so far as to issue a policy statement which defines the different types of autonomous driving, describes the research that is planned or necessary to support regulation, and suggests that states are the appropriate authorities to regulate autonomous vehicles and/or license and train/certify drivers concluding that, for now, autonomous vehicle use should be confined to testing.

In its policy statement NHTSA expresses its interest in avoiding overly prescriptive regulation that might impede innovation.  (http://tinyurl.com/n2j5rpr - "U.S. Department of Transportation Releases Policy on Automoted Vehicle Development")  Samuelson will be taking the opposite view, that a lack of regulation will do more harm.

There are several important reasons for Samuelson’s concern:

  1. Autonomous driving technology is already emerging and available as an aftermarket solution from companies such as Cruise - www.getcruise.com. In other words, the cat is out of the garage so there is no time to lose for U.S. regulators to establish rules of the autonomous driving road;
  2. If companies can only “test” and cannot commercialize their solutions only the largest companies will be able to participate in this driving revolution due to the cost of building these systems and the related liability exposure.  Also, if autonomous vehicles are not explicitly legal they are by definition illegal and innovators will be forced to operate as outlaws;
  3. Self-driving cars will need to be secure and car companies need additional goading from the Federal government to sort out their security vulnerabilities;
  4. Volvo’s newest self-driving technology “IntelliSafe Auto Pilot” will benefit greatly from a regulatory regime that includes the identification of self-driving approved stretches of highway.  (http://tinyurl.com/oy66mwe - "Volvo Reveals Its 'IntelliSafe' Autonomous Driving Technology");
  5. Self-driving cars will inevitably be crossing state lines, which means a responsible, default level of national regulation and policy must be defined.

The drivers of autonomous vehicles may not need special licenses, but some kind of training or certification to manage user interface and hand-off elements for returning to human control of autonomous vehicle operation should be provided for. Further, the Federal government should define a framework for identifying the circumstances suitable to autonomous operation including time of day, roadway condition and type and weather and driver attention.

It is possible that a single state, such as California, could take the lead in defining the autonomous driving framework. California has the advantage of being the home to a significant portion of technology development in the self-driving car category while also having some of the most forgiving weather conditions for autonomous operation.

California already has demonstrated its automotive policy leadership credentials in the area of vehicle emissions, influencing emissions and fuel efficiency standards globally. Given NHTSA’s limited resources, a cooperative framework development effort between NHTSA and California or NHTSA and all four states (Michigan, Florida, Nevada and California) currently allowing autonomous vehicle operation might make the most sense.

Mr Samuelsson will address a select audience at a seminar entitled “A Future with Self Driving Cars – Is it Safe?” at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, today, during which he will emphasize that the introduction of self-driving cars on the world’s roads will happen more quickly than many lawmakers anticipated.

The final question to be addressed by Samuelson is legal liability. According to Volvo’s announcement of Samuelson’s speech: “He will say Volvo will accept full liability whenever one if its cars is in autonomous mode, making it one of the first car makers in the world to make such a promise. He will add that Volvo regards the hacking of a car as a criminal offense.”

“‘We are constantly evolving defensive software to counter the risks associated with hacking a car. We do not blame Apple, or Microsoft for computer viruses or hackers,’ he will say.”

The statement from Samuelson is especially bold given the fact that multiple videos have circulated online in the past few years showing Volvo car’s errantly hitting people during demonstrations of automatic emergency braking. Samuelson’s pledges will go a long way to dispelling any ambiguity regarding the company’s commitment to safety, autonomous vehicle operation and industry leadership.

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