Don't let regulation put the brakes on autonomous vehicle innovation

Autonomous vehicles will make a significant impact on society, both from a safety standpoint and a cultural one. As we work to make autonomous driving a reality, one thing that has become clear is that innovation needs to be nurtured by policy, not regulation.

The history of regulation in car manufacturing supports this point as well. Many of the ubiquitous safety mechanisms that we take for granted today like seatbelts, airbags, electronic stability control and automatic emergency braking, were all developed independently by carmakers years or even decades before any regulation was put in place. And when that regulation was instituted, it was actually to enforce those safety standards, rather than reshape them.

However, until regulation is in place we of course need to ensure public safety. This is done through a high safety awareness within the industry, sharing knowledge between industry, academia and government and by a very simple tort law which essentially states that, if your vehicle hurts somebody or damages property because of an issue in its manufacturing or operation, you are financially responsible. These mechanisms have driven automotive safety forward since its inception and should continue to do so — even with driverless vehicles.

Self-driving vehicles have the potential to revolutionize transportation. Around the world each year, 1.3 million people die from traffic accidents. An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. Road accidents amount to $ 518 billion in damages. These numbers will only increase as more drivers get behind the wheel in emerging economies. The technology that Zenuity is helping to pioneer can set us on a different course. Zenuity is a joint venture between Volvo Cars and Swedish safety products supplier Autoliv.

More than a year ago some of the biggest companies in the automotive, autonomous, and ride-sharing realms — Ford, Google, Lyft and Uber — formed an alliance to lobby the U.S. government to better prepare America’s roads for self-driving technology. This cross-industry cooperation is necessary. Currently in the U.S., there isn’t a codified policy on AV testing. Some states still require a driver to be in the car, some have limits on the amount of hours or miles companies can test their vehicles. The global situation is even more diverse.

Lawmakers need to recognize that this uncertainty makes it difficult for vendors to push the technological envelope forward.

Nascent revolution

It doesn’t make sense to imagine what might go wrong in the future and forbid it in advance. It makes far more sense to recommend guidelines for self-certification that would result from unimpeded testing and NHTSA studies. We are all in the nascent stages of this revolution and it is imperative that we give all parties involved enough room to innovate at their own pace.

The future of AVs is bright, and will require cooperation not just among competing automakers, but with national governments as well. We share vision zero, and autonomy can bring this vision within reach. Cities will be transformed as workers can afford to live further from the office thanks to a stress and traffic-free commute. The elderly and disabled will be given new mobility, and ride-sharing costs will be reduced to levels where all income levels can utilize this transport to take them to the country for a hike or to another city to see family. 

Regulatory policy will be a crucial element in all of these societal advancements, but we must not put the cart before the horse. Right now what the industry requires is guidelines that evolve with the frontier of knowledge, not regulation that is difficult to change. It requires champions, not critics. It requires cooperation, not confrontation.

Erik Coelingh is technology adviser for Zenuity, a joint venture of Volvo Cars and Autoliv, the first-ever ADAS and AD technology collaboration between a leading premium car manufacturer and a tier-one supplier. Follow him @ErikCoelingh. 

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