* Bob Reed…
Champions of self-driving cars are embarking on a journey through one of the state’s most winding and hazardous passageways — the Illinois General Assembly.
Recently, state legislation was introduced that seeks to regulate use of this emerging technology by imposing tighter auto safety standards on cars using automated driving systems. It argues this is best accomplished by restricting the operation of self-driving cars to companies that make their own vehicles and have a track record for safety.
It’s a controversial bill that’s perceived as a sop to legacy automaker General Motors, which was instrumental in pushing the measure introduced this month by Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside. It’s strongly opposed by a coalition of driverless technology players, including Google, Uber Technologies, Ford and Volvo; the companies claim GM wants to ace them out of the self-driving auto market or, at the very least, slow them down.
Yet while this impending legislative fight is being framed as a marketplace tussle of old versus new ideas, Zalewski’s bill does raise another important question: Are these new self-driving vehicles being properly tested and will the public be safe in them once these vehicles are marketed en masse?
* Public safety and proper testing are definitely big issues…
Last December, Uber’s self-driving cars hit the rain-slicked streets of San Francisco with much fanfare. It was meant to be a watershed moment — the upstart ride-hail company bringing autonomous driving to its city of origin, years before most experts predicted we’d begin to see self-driving cars en masse.
But it turned out to be a total flop. A week after Uber’s fleet of 16 luxury Volvo XC90 SUVs started picking up passengers, the program was brought to a grinding halt. The California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked Uber’s vehicle registrations after Uber refused to obtain a $150 permit authorizing it to test driverless cars in the state. And rather than correct what on the surface seemed like a clerical error, Uber refused to get licensed, instead shipping its autonomous fleet to Arizona where it could test its self-driving cars with less public scrutiny. […]
Why did Uber launch the self-driving in pilot in San Francisco if it knew it was in violation of the law? A likely scenario was that Uber didn’t want to disclose its disengagement rate — the number of times the vehicle forced the human driver to take control because it couldn’t safely navigate the conditions on the road — or any accidents to the DMV, and by extension the public. […]
A few days after it launched its unauthorized experiment in San Francisco, a self-driving Uber was caught on video running a red light. Uber claimed the car was under manual control at the time. “These incidents were due to human error,” a spokesperson told The Verge.
But that turned out to be false: the car had actually driven itself through the light, sources told The New York Times. In fact, Uber’s self-driving cars failed to recognize five other traffic lights around the city. Had it signed up for the permit, Uber would have had to report that infraction to the DMV.
We don’t want people testing cars that are going through red lights on public streets. And we shouldn’t be dedicating infrastructure spending to these vehicles. If they’re self-driving, then they should be using the roads with everyone else. If that can’t be done, why should we create special lanes or zones for them? Isn’t traffic already a big enough problem in places like Cook County?
* Back to the bill…
After falling behind in self-driving cars, GM has unleashed its powerful lobbying team to cultivate relationships with statehouses. The largest U.S. vehicle maker by sales has a long history of backing legislation to preserve its interests, including a bill in Indiana last year that would stop electric-vehicle maker Tesla Inc. (TSLA) from operating its own stores there.
GM denied it is trying to keep tech companies out of the market for autonomous vehicles, noting that ultimately the lawmakers make the decision on what’s filed and that the company has worked with policy makers who have different views on the degree of legislation they want to support. On Thursday, the auto maker said it has been having discussions with Uber and Waymo, a unit of Google owner Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL), on language that everyone can support.
And we shouldn’t be passing legislation to favor one company over others in this early stage of the game.