This October, the deputy director of the California DMV, Brian Soublet, indicated he really didn’t know what he, or his staff, were supposed to do in crafting regulations for self-driving vehicles: “We didn’t ask to be in the business of regulating a technology. We haven’t been in that business before. It was forced upon us by legislation.” The legislation that Soublet was referring to was California Senate Bill 1298, which mandated the DMV produce regulations that established a number of safety requirements for the testing of autonomous vehicles.
Now, the California DMV has draft regulations that “will establish the requirements that manufacturers must meet in order to allow the general public to operate their autonomous vehicles.” In particular, these include:
- Manufacturer safety certifications as well as independent verification of the “vehicle’s ability to perform key driving maneuvers that are typically encountered in real-world driving conditions”–to be administered by a third party;
- A driver certified in autonomous vehicle operations must be present in the vehicle (though, oddly enough, the requirements “ exclude autonomous vehicles that are capable of operating without the presence of a driver”);
- Provisional three year deployment permits, which include ongoing safety and operations reports to be submitted to the state government throughout this probationary period;
- Privacy requirements that alert operators/users of autonomous vehicles to what data is being collected by the vehicle and cybersecurity requirements to grant override capabilities in the event of a cyber attack; and
- A prohibition on the sale of autonomous vehicles. Rather, the certifications will only permit sellers to lease the vehicles.
There are many problems with these various regulatory provisions. Far too many with which to deal in a single blog post. Broadly speaking the common problematic theme across all these requirements is that they are far too precautionary and fail to take account of the rapid nature of technological progress.
Even 30 years after researchers at Carnegie Mellon University successfully tested the first autonomous vehicle, this remains an emerging and nascent technology. Although it is certainly developing faster with each passing month and year, we’re still at least a few years–possibly longer–from commercially viable autonomous vehicles. Even attempting to craft regulations at this point is likely to have unforeseen, and probably unfortunate, consequences for innovation and technological progress. In addition, given the increasing rate of technological development in automation, the technology is far outpacing the ability of regulators to keep up (for a strikingly parallel example to this, look no further than the historical, and ongoing, troubles the FAA has faced in attempting to integrate commercial drones into the American airspace).
The California DMV and FAA are just two examples of outdated 20th century government agencies that have a static mindset for dealing with a particular set of problems that are either slow, unable, or unwilling to adapt to the current pace of technological change. Safety is indeed an issue that requires serious consideration. However, as I’ve previously discussed, the companies involved in researching, applying, and testing these technologies have the greatest incentive of anyone–regulators included–to get safety and security right.
As I noted in a co-authored Mercatus paper, mass adoption of autonomous vehicles holds the potential to curtail some 33,000 annual deaths on American roadways, as well as save on massive reductions in traffic congestion costs, thousands of travel hours, and hundreds of millions of gallons of gas. Total annual comprehensive cost savings are potentially in the hundreds of billions of dollars. These are the types of benefits that can accrue to average Americans, but only if regulators don’t force onerous restrictions on producers and consumers.
Rather than throwing up roadblocks to these vehicles, California regulators should be paving the way to a more autonomous future by getting out of the way.