The impediment of regulation is an obstacle that may be one of the most difficult for developers of AV platforms to overcome.
The impediment of regulation is an obstacle that may be one of the most difficult for developers of AV platforms to overcome.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay)

Autonomous Vehicles Differing Regulatory Approaches to Autonomous Vehicles

| Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

With an age of ubiquitous autonomous vehicles (AVs) slowly approaching, some countries, provinces, and states are more open than others to having these marvelous mobile innovations traveling on public roads.

In countries like Singapore, the prevailing attitude toward ultramodern technology is much more enlightened than in, say, places like West Virginia. In other lands, such as Japan, the aging population and a shrinking workforce mean there’s growing demand for AVs, especially in parts of the country that are not densely urban. At the same time, still other nations like the United States exhibit a vast disparity between the different states that comprise it, presenting singular regulatory environments that are more attractive for AV platform developers than others.

Beyond all the hurdles that advanced technology and real-world “edge cases” (extremely rare, but still conceivable, driving scenarios) present, the impediment of regulation is an obstacle that may be one of the most difficult for developers of AV platforms to overcome.

Never mind that AVs have performed incomparably better—with far fewer accidents (by orders of magnitude)—on public roads than vehicles driven by humans.

Never mind that records of AV platform “disengagements” (instances where backup safety drivers were forced to take control of AVs) are extremely rare for developers. (In the American state of California in 2019, there was a median disengagement rate equivalent to one in thousands of trips, for example).

The fact of the matter is that, in most cases, governments are woefully behind private enterprise and even academic and nonprofit groups in terms of studying AV traffic integration and safety. Several years ago, even the concept of a Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 4 or 5 self-driving car might as well have been science fiction to officials in many national and regional road safety departments.

For many of these departments, the problem of formulating regulations was one of chicken and egg: how could public safety be guaranteed while these largely unproven vehicles were allowed to drive on main thoroughfares in order to earn the safety certifications they needed in the first place?

Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and a step-by-step approach to approval and licensing has been pursued in a number of jurisdictions, not the least of which has been the aforementioned State of California.

In California at the moment, only seven firms are licensed to operate driverless AVs that carry human passengers—Waymo, Voyage, Cruise, Zoox, AutoX, Aurora, and Pony.ai. To acquire these special licenses, these firms first had to have their vehicles successfully undergo testing without passengers, using backup safety drivers, and—before both of these conditions could be trialed—extensive “proof of concept” testing on closed private roads and tracks.

Government’s conservative approach

The last thing that either an AV platform developer or a governmental authority wants is a headline-generating accident, especially any involving a fatality, like the tragic death of Elaine Herzberg in March 2018, who was killed by an Uber ATG AV while crossing a street with her bicycle in Tempe, Arizona.

Subsequent to that incident—considered a watershed event in the AV industry—Uber chose not to apply to renew its license for operating AVs in the State of Arizona. Both the company and the industry had to step back and substantially reevaluate many testing, engineering, and safety procedures.

Government authorities are well-advised to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to regulating AVs. While the AV developer community has a comparatively excellent safety record, the automobile industry as a whole decidedly does not.

When accidents do happen, officials and the public tend not to assign blame for dangerous accidents to non-living entities like AV platforms. Instead, the executives and managers who desired and permitted these vehicles to operate on public roads in the first place will likely feel the heat. Thus, officials tend to approach the AV regulation process with an abundance of caution rather than a lack of it.

Simply getting officials to even understand how AV technology works has been fraught with difficulty. Without an adequate comprehension of the technology, it becomes very challenging to estimate the risk an AV presents to other drivers, as well as pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists.

Adding to the vexation is the fact that not all AV platforms work the same way; different developers take disparate approaches in the kinds of sensors they employ and how they process the data from these. Ultimately, the question is not how many or what kind of sensors or chips or electronic control units (ECUs) an AV platform has—it’s how well the platform performs in real-world conditions.

For the State of California and other jurisdictions, that’s measured chiefly by the number of disengagements (in addition to the number of accidents/incidents) a platform is subject to in the course of its operation.

Some Bright Spots

Fortunately for autonomous carmakers and platform developers, some countries like Singapore and Japan are considerably friendlier toward AVs operating on their streets, even in cases where such vehicles may have less real-world road experience than human-driven ones.

In Singapore, a very good case can be made that the relatively small size of the country (roughly 722 square kilometers) and low number of vehicles (about one million) on its streets means that the risks of horrific accidents can be minimized. Indeed, several AV industry observers have pointed out that Singapore may in the future be one of the first countries in the world to mandate AVs on some or even all of its roads.

Also because of its size, Singapore may be one of the first countries to fully integrate intelligent transport system (ITS) infrastructure technology throughout the entire nation. Thus, it should come as no surprise that AV companies such as Navya, Aptiv, and Ascent Robotics have conducted extensive testing programs or even started autonomous robo-taxi services on the island.

In late 2019, the government of Singapore announced it will eventually open up significant portions of the western half of the island—in particular, more than 1,000 kilometers of public roads in the neighborhoods of Bukit Timah, Clementi, and Jurong—to testing of AVs. Previously successful trials in the areas of Punggol and Tengah encouraged the government’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) to expand areas of AV operations.

“These shuttles, trucks, and buses could quite significantly transform mobility in Singapore, enabling more efficient, dynamically routed, or on-demand forms of shared transport,” remarked Dr. Janil Puthucheary, the nation’s Senior Minister of State for Transport. Currently, all AVs are required to bear prominent self-identification and undergo stringent safety assessments. For the time being, backup drivers are required in all vehicles, even if they’re not the ones doing the actual driving. Fully driverless vehicles are expected to receive operational permits as soon as the LTA develops qualified safety criteria for them—something that’s anticipated shortly.

In Japan, an aging population and a shrinking workforce mean that for elderly residents of rural areas, there are fewer transportation options for taking inhabitants to shopping centers or to medical appointments. The government of Japan has recognized this, and so, there’s been a relaxation of some regulations for AVs; for instance, on many public roads, SAE Level 3 autonomous operation of vehicles is now permitted. In a number of suburban or rural areas, it’s expected that traffic may become dominated by AVs, particularly on specific avenues or routes. Urban planning for certain municipalities has begun to take this into account.

Other Regions

Returning to the chicken-and-egg idea, a few AV platform developers like Cruise and Intel/MobilEye have consciously sought to test their AVs in demanding urban settings like San Francisco and Jerusalem so they’ll face less difficulty later in simpler surroundings. While initially, it might be harder to get approval for operating AVs in these places, in theory, once these environments have been mastered by their respective platforms, everything else could be considered “downhill.”

In the United States so far, the federal government has taken a relatively hands-off approach to AV regulation, allowing individual states to write and enforce their own rules. While this might change in the future, for now, it’s set up a highly confusing and frustrating patchwork whereby an AV company might be allowed to have its vehicles’ functions operate in one state but not in another.

Needless to say, for advertising and marketing specific capabilities of vehicles, this is a nightmare. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has stated that this patchwork of regulations may severely restrict what his cars can and cannot do within the United States. For now, suffice it to say that the U.S. states of Florida, Michigan, Georgia, Texas, Nevada, and California appear to be far more friendly to AVs than states like Kansas or Missouri.