When speaking before the U.S. Senate or Congress one has to choose one’s words carefully. The temptation, when one is speaking before legislators and microphones and cameras, is to tell it like it is and speak truth to power. The reality is that the power of the legislators and the microphones and the cameras must be respected and, consequently, words must be chosen carefully.
I was struck while watching video (link below) of Nvidia vice president and general manager of automotive Rob Csongor’s testimony on self-driving car technology at how measured and carefully he spoke. I fully expected him to say, in response to Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, “Actually, Senator, we’d all prefer you all kept your noses out of our business.”
Csongor didn’t say that. He complimented Inhofe’s committee for what he described as its efforts to foster and stimulate the advancement of self-driving car technology and he suggested that Nvidia and others in the industry would welcome Federal guidance.
My personal take on the situation is a little different. This is why no one asks me to testify on Capitol Hill.
For me, the only thing worse than the U.S. Department of Transportation setting self-driving car policies and priorities is the U.S. Congress weighing in with legislation. The common threads are politics and incompetence, neither of which are helpful to advancing technology, but Congress introduces the rule of law into this toxic mix.
The reason the U.S. DOT is a bad place for self-driving car policy making is the Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, has demonstrated her ignorance of the technology and of its implications in her public comments:
“Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Doesn’t Seem to Understand Self-Driving Cars” – Slate.com
Worse than that, the relevant agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, yet lacks an administrator under the Trump administration to lead any new regulatory activity. The most likely outcome, though, is that the agency will issue voluntary guidelines.
The danger of legislators getting involved is they could actually pass laws the harms related to which may be more difficult to avoid or undo. Historically, states have taken the lead on setting policies governing the manufacture, maintenance and operation of automobiles.
In spite of the risks, the technology and automotive industries both appear to be appealing for regulatory cover for their self-driving car development activities. Toward that end Republican legislators are offering bills, according to Reuters, to put the U.S. DOT firmly in command of self-driving car development nationally in the U.S. in the interest of stimulating development by removing impediments and conflicts that might arise from state-by-state policy making.
The self-driving car debate on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, has touched on safety, cybersecurity, driver distraction and insurance but it has focused most recently on privacy. The Federal Trade Commission held a hearing yesterday on the privacy implications inherent in connected cars, but the FTC hearing was preceded, on June 14th, by a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee entitled “Paving the Way for Self-Driving Vehicles.”
It was at this hearing that Nvidia’s Csongor, made the clearest possible statement of policy regarding data gathering and privacy protection. The statement came during Q&A from Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma who noted with pride the fact that his state hosts a major Google data center in Pryor, OK.
“The data that we collect we use for one purpose and for one purpose only and that’s to improve AI algorithms so that you can have a safer car. We regard any of the information that is collected as part of that data as private information. We don’t share it with anybody unless we have a very secure way of sharing that data. The data is collected in our vehicles. If it’s updated in a system the transmission of the data, the upload and the download, is encrypted. And then within the building there’s a multi-layer security protocol ranging from the building security and the server infrastructure and then within the server there are various layers of firewall.”
This statement, following as it did Inhofe’s expression of pride in his state’s hosting of Google, was notable for what it did not say. Csongor did not mention Nvidia’s relationship with Amazon Web Services. With Google knotted in European privacy investigations and tangled in its advertising-driven, privacy-violating business model, Nvidia’s relationship with Amazon is a potentially game-changing partnership.
Csongor also failed to mention the wide range of privacy regulations that vary country-to-country as much as automotive regulations can vary state-to-state. Clearly, Nvidia and others in the self-driving car development race will have to come to terms with these privacy regulations – but they will do so with the advantage that the gathering of this data has a single purpose – developing safer self-driving cars. (Tesla Motor’s approach to this process requires an overt customer opt-in to enhanced video collection.)
Csongor chose his words carefully. The implications of those words may reverberate for many years to come.
As for NHTSA, the candidate agency to set self-driving policy or guidelines, the agency has a mixed record when it comes to managing and sharing data. Skeptics regarding Tesla’s claims for reduced airbag deployments resulting from the implementation of Autosteer have asked NHTSA to share Tesla’s findings so that they may be reviewed and independently validated. NHTSA is stonewalling those requests.
Quality Control Systems Sues NHTSA for Tesla Data
NHTSA clearly has more work to do to define its own policy around data collection and sharing. Maybe Nvidia can provide some guidance.