Ask anyone with a vested interest in denouncing self-driving cars, and they’ll spout off a sound bite about the piles of legislation standing in the way of this technology’s growth. Be it repealing old laws or drafting new ones, the pace of government can only be accelerated so much by lobbyist dollars.
But ask them a second question: “what laws in particular?”
The murky reprise that public policy serves as a roadblock to autonomous vehicles is happily sung as a chorus, yet with no preceding verse. It’s seemingly enough for naysayers to cry “politics” and expect us all to shrug our shoulders in unified defeat without ever hearing about the actual issues. Sounds like we need to do the work for them. Let’s find out what’s relevant and what isn’t, what needs to change, and how long a timeline we’re facing.
Safety & Insurance
Hacking. Regardless of the robo-brains we build into vehicles from here on out, cars on the market today are nearly as hackable as they’ll ever be. Ergo, it’s in the best interest of both short-term and long-term lobbyists to mitigate a hacker’s ability to hijack a vehicle. This is a topic many uninformed journalists harp on to win your fear-ridden clicks.
But… we already have a law against hijacking a car. Carjacking. Turns out we accidentally created a law in 1992 that works for 2017 and beyond. It’s a federal law with severe penalties that, in most states, has a broad enough interpretation that you’ll have committed the crime simply by taking control of the vehicle and causing the passenger to fear for their safety. Doesn’t say anything about you having to be inside the car at the time.
And of course, since you’d also be hijacking the company property of a Google or Ford (or even the State), you can bet you’ll be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, which can and will turn it into a full-blown federal case with some related offenses tacked on.
That said, “hacking” is a practice grossly misunderstood by the public — if anything, I’d say the carjacking laws we have today are Draconian if repurposed for hacking. Should the police have the right to show up at your door and shoot your 17-year-0ld son while he’s in progress of hacking a vehicle from his bedroom? Because that might fly today in Louisianna, based on how the state law defends killing a carjacker as justifiable homicide.
This is a law that needs work, but for the opposite reason everyone else is crying about. For your precious passengers’ safety, it’s already on the books.
Insurance. Here’s another example of people flipping out over their own stupidity: “who’s at fault if a self-driving car crashes?” Insurance and legislation have always had a complicated relationship… it didn’t prevent the growth of road transit, or rail transit, or air transit. Where there is opportunity, there is a party willing to absorb the risk.
But hey, you already knew that: you’ve ridden in a taxi, or an Uber, or an airplane, without knowing your rights or your coverage. So, again, whining about car insurance reform for autonomous cars is a non-starter. Someone will find a net benefit in absorbing the risk, and if it’s you or your insurance company, then nothing changes.
Now, if it’s the manufacturer, then things will change — but that has nothing to do with legislation. In fact, as I proposed a few years ago, the idea of a manufacturer offering insurance coverage and freeing consumers from such a burdensome personal expense is an extremely appealing go-to-market strategy… but it’s a warranty at the end of the day, nothing more. And some manufacturers have already taken to it.
Licenses. We’re not too far from the point where humans and robots will have to pass the same driving test, which makes sense, right? Obviously they should be able to perform as well or better than humans. Except the U.S. has been skating along with a joke of a driver’s exam for decades, so as individual states revisit these tests with new benchmarks in mind, don’t be surprised to find that humans are only able to pass certain portions, and start receiving limited-use licenses.
Further, this timeline lines up with the increasing proliferation of connected and increasingly-autonomous cars, which means that licensing really just needs to add class designations as the technology develops.
In other words, your driver’s license doesn’t authorize you to drive an 18-wheeler or a motorcycle today, right? So in three years, your typical driver’s license will also omit Level 0 cars (old cars with absolutely no driving aids, because you don’t know how to drive stick, or brake without ABS, or control a spin, etc.)… and in five years, you’ll be prohibited from driving cars that can only warn you of danger rather than save you from it. As the tech improves, it outperforms you on more and more areas of the test, and you lose control. Eventually, most of us won’t be able to pass any driver’s test at all, which will be fine, because it will mean all the autonomous cars have the licenses. None of this requires some incredible uprooting of the DMV or the licensing system. Just add vehicle types and test conditions, nothing new.
Now, the Fed will likely set performance standards for those vehicle types, similar to what they’ve done in the past. And it’s not promising to hear politicians referring to SAE Levels Of Autonomy as gospel given how short-sighted they are. But, if you’re envisioning a long, litigious road to hoe, remember the NHTSA has already accepted Google’s AI as a human-level driver.
Privacy & Information
Smartphone Bans. In 2–3 years, using your phone while driving won’t just be illegal — it’ll be impossible. Apple has already started the march. When you think of your phone as a bartender that third parties can control, the glory days of Driving While Instagramming are over, and with them several thousand traffic deaths each year. What does that have to do with the end of driving? Check out any poll of what 35 & unders prioritize in their lives. Think about any mom in the country who isn’t going to have access to her family when anyone’s in transit. Give that voting majority an ultimatum of driving or data, and see what happens.
Surveillance. As government agencies, insurance companies and car makers seek further efficiency in being able to identify and assess traffic behavior, development of autonomous vehicles will continue to drive down the cost of vision hardware and software. That means having your state move to electronic tolling is a snap, as is ticketing for red lights and speeding and illegal parking, preventing theft, curtailing insurance fraud, assigning fault in car accidents, and so on.
There will be a handful of powerful parties pushing for this level of access in some manner or another, and you’ll have a hard time pushing back on it as a consumer who just bought a new car with half a dozen cameras in it. Call it a nanny state all you want — you’ve been voluntarily buying and using the products that make it tick.
I don’t think we’re more than 5–7 years out from waking up to a world where it is nearly impossible to get away with illegal or fraudulent vehicle activity. In fact, once insurance companies emerge from their current denial stage, you can bet they’ll be one of the loudest supporters of “data transparency” — be it sticking a mandatory dongle in your OBDII port, or getting a feed from the car’s operating system. The only way insurers can scale down their operations to align with the new, no-policy-required transportation market is if they can manage policies and claims remotely, via access to video and telemetry data.
Vehicle Communication (V2V/V2X). You’re probably doing the math on my claim that no car will be without nanny cams in 5 years, and thinking that’s horse shit given how many of America’s 250MM vehicles are not going to be traded in over the next 5 years. Good eye, but the consumer vehicle market is no longer its own bubble.
We can’t have an ordinary human driver in a vintage car driving next to a full-on self-driving vehicle, driving next to a half-assed solution like Tesla. The Fed will require some lowest common denominator of communication on the roads, and a middle finger is unfortunately not going to cut it.
Retrofit kits will be made mandatory nationwide. Maybe rolled up as part of that aforementioned insurance dongle, or maybe as part of the soon-to-be-mentioned transit currency program, who knows. But this is happening, and real self-driving cars can’t safely frolic in our streets until it does, so while V2X will start popping up on its own in the next few years, expect the consumer retrofit regulation to hit within 5–7 years.
Vehicles & Infrastructure
Multimodal Initiatives. Developing healthier alternative/mass/multimodal transportation solutions is at the top of almost every U.S. city’s wish list — and with rare exception, urban plans and construction across the country are paying at least some attention to such opportunities.
That’s in a pre-autonomous environment. When we actually do start seeing driverless vehicles launched over the next 2–4 years, they’ll first appear in isolated environments where edge cases can be mitigated, and archaic traffic laws can be circumvented. University campuses, low-income and senior neighborhoods, shopping centers, industrial parks, etc. And they’ll be shared, mass transit solutions.
Those projects will accelerate green legislation incentivizing citizens to utilize multimodal transportation and cities to adopt next-gen urban planning. which is one side of an important socioeconomic shift. The other side is next, and makes the deterioration of car ownership more obvious…
Car Bans. Congestion pricing and car bans are the new black in Europe and a handful of eastern nations, serving as somewhat blunt tools to ease strain on the transportation grid.
The U.S. is arguably behind this trend already, with many of its most populous cities witnessing a steady, unsustainable creep in the level of gridlock and construction drivers must endure. So to say we’ll see new, aggressive anti-car policies in the next 2–4 years is certainly not a stretch, and like many things United States, it will only take one or two pioneering states’ initiatives before another dozen rush to join the party.
Universal Transit Currency. There’s a good chance the average citizen will get their first conscious taste of blockchain technology through the deployment of a universal transit currency.
A few points to consider:
- We’ve established that driver’s licenses are not long for this world, and with their departure, we lose the (flawed) de facto U.S. citizen ID
- We’ve established that cities will be increasing the accessibility of transportation options, the success of which partially hinges on participation from socioeconomic groups who don’t necessarily have a bank account or credit card they can just hook up for payment
- We’ve established that cameras and sensors in and outside vehicles are going to play an ever larger role in conducting transactions automatically and remotely, such as processing a dynamic bridge toll, or ticketing you for speeding, etc.
- We’ve established that pushing multimodal and shared transit is close to the hearts of many city planners, which naturally complicates the infrastructure — and that’s without even considering the idea of folding international travel into the mix.
So, we have more people participating in a wider array of transactions, bringing with them a broader spectrum of use cases and personal limitations, all while attempting to develop some sustainable means of economic supervision. Welcome to blockchain.
It won’t take much for the world’s developed nations to realize cryptocurrency and smart contracts are among the most important components of a successful transportation revolution. You build the most lightweight, transparent, secure economic model you can, and next-gen transit will flourish. You remove so much friction that taking a cab to LAX, hopping on a plane, flying to Tokyo, hopping on a bus, and taking it to the Shinkansen train requires zero cultural research, zero money exchange, and zero identification confirmation.
Of all the potential legislation in this article, blockchain may sound like the most far-fetched. America’s FedCoin initiative begs to differ, as does the UN’s project to send cryptocurrency vouchers to Syrian refugees. This isn’t science fiction folks. This is no more than a decade out. The long arm of the law can sense itself atrophying in the face of technological advances, and the reaction has been lightning-fast by government standards. Stay tuned.
Thanks to Michele Kyrouz for being the sanity check on this piece.