Anyone looking to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to forthrightly assert a path-setting policy vision to guide autonomous vehicle development in the U.S. during his CES 2022 keynote was sorely disappointed. There was no guidance from the Secretary.
The issue has gained new urgency now that Waymo has sued the California Department of Motor Vehicles for allegedly sharing some Waymo-specific operational data with an unspecified inquiring third party. Outraged, Waymo is seeking an end to the sharing of its data relevant to how its autonomous vehicles operate or cope with specific circumstances.
The lawsuit represents an important turning point in autonomous vehicle regulation. California lays claim to some of the most rigorous reporting requirements in relation to what is likely the largest group of licensed AV operators in the world.
The primary philosophy behind California’s autonomous vehicle regulatory policy is one of disclosure. Operators are obliged to report all disengagement events – where the safety driver has had to take over from the AV system. This, in turn, has created a battle among licensed operators to show the greatest distance traveled, on average, between disengagement events.
Waymo has used California’s reporting framework as a marketing tool to advertise its performance advantages over the numerous competitors operating in the state. Observers have grown frustrated that the disengagement-centric system is skewing AV development priorities in favor of favorable operating environments including location and time of day.
What is missing in the California regulatory regime is a minimum set of performance requirements, standards, or tests that operators must meet to receive their operating license. The AV regulation is performance based, but only in retrospect – and calling for mitigation in the event of failures for which the State seeks functional disclosures – that have allegedly been shared.
Ironically, since each licensed operator is generally pursuing its own bespoke path to autonomous operation it is unclear that any could benefit from learning about specific corrective measures that any other operator might have taken. All operators are presumably using similar mathematics, but each is using a unique portfolio of sensors and each has its own philosophical approach to writing its AV code.
The lawsuit highlights the lack of an adequate performance-based licensing or regulatory regime for AV operation on public roads. Each of the 50 U.S. states have pursued their own unique approaches – as have countries around the world.
The U.S. came close to establishing an AV regulatory regime at the end of the Obama administration, but fell short after unresolved disputes emerged over the number of AVs that would be exempted from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards requirements such as brake pedals and steering wheels.
It is fairly clear that the Federal government is not in a position to establish a single path to autonomous operation. In this regard it is worth noting that the first AV operator to be granted an FMVSS waiver was Nuro – the maker of delivery bots.
What might work, as part of a process of setting AV operational standards, would be a series of operational tests that AV prototypes will have to pass – such as recognizing and responding to obstacles and other vehicles. Such an approach can be calibrated to establish some basic performance characteristics without giving an advantage to any particular operator or strategic approach.
It is worth noting that in the current global environment characterized by the existing regulatory vacuum, Mobileye, alone, has a unique advantage in putting forth its Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) framework. Mobileye says RSS “has advanced its way into both IEEE and ISO standards efforts recently. Intel Senior Principal Engineer and Mobileye VP of Automated Vehicle Standards Jack Weast is chairing the IEEE effort to adopt a formal technical standard known as IEEE P2846: A Formal Model for Safety Considerations in Automated Vehicle Decision Making.”
Alone among operators, Mobileye is working to turn transparency into a competitive advantage. No competing operator has yet come forward to offer an equivalent vision – though Nvidia tried, and failed, with its Safety Force Field (SFF) alternative, which was quickly set aside.
While Mobileye touts RSS, competitors are left with smoke and mirrors. And Waymo clearly wants to keep that smoke and those mirrors in place – resisting requirements that it share elements of its disengagement mitigation. Waymo may be getting something of a comeuppance in California where General Motors’ Cruise may report some exceptional low disengagement figures – surpassing even Waymo – after operating exclusively at night.
It’s time for U.S. regulators to put forward some minimum performance requirements. The U.S. DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has spent decades crashing cars. Isn’t it about time they started figuring out how to prevent cars from crashing in the first place?
I think it is. The Waymo lawsuit is a sign of the times and the time has come for change. The framework for regulation should be less focused on disclosure than it is on performance testing. Regulators should define the objectives and measure and monitor their achievement – anything less is an abdication of responsibility.
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