Self-driving vehicles

Feds Want to Support Automated Cars. Oh, Also: They Want Much More Regulatory Authority.

Innovation is an opportunity for some to expand government power.

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Reason
Reason Magazine

The good news is that the federal government genuinely does want self-driving or automated vehicles to happen. Credit a heavily technocratic Obama administration that loves the idea of replacing the poor choices of feckless citizens with smooth, sleek algorithms.

Today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a 116-page report detailing how it plans to regulate the introduction of these cars, which they're calling "highly automated vehicles," or HAVs. So we can have a debate over whether it should be legal to allow HAVs to drive in HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes.

The administration wants these cars on the road, but on its own terms. President Barack Obama makes it clear in a guest commentary over at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where HAVs are now being tested on the road. He also makes it clear that the federal government will be deciding what is and isn't safe. Obama and the NHTSA are your parents watching you do a wacky chemistry experiment for a science fair project making sure you don't mix the wrong things together:

Regulation can go too far. Government sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to rapidly changing technologies. That's why this new policy is flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.

There are always those who argue that government should stay out of free enterprise entirely, but I think most Americans would agree we still need rules to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe. That's the general principle here. What's more, the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies.

Both government and industry have a responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen. And make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn't safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won't hesitate to protect the American public's safety.

To be completely clear, "For [the Department of Transportation], the excitement around highly automated vehicles (HAVs) starts with safety," is a sentence somebody actually wrote with complete sincerity in the executive summary of the report.

Much of the report is technical, dry, and about figuring out how HAV regulations fit within existing federal framework. That is very nearly praise, given the much worse potential alternatives. The NHTSA is providing guidance to the states in the report, trying to separate what the federal government wants to control (establishing vehicle safety standards, managing recalls, issuing guidance to manufacturers) and what it wants to leave to the states (licensing drivers, enforcing traffic laws, managing safety inspections and liability rules)

Essentially it's similar to the separation of authorities over vehicles right now, but what they're trying to do is prevent individual states (and cities) from creating their own rules about what an HAV must have or do in order to be allowed on the road. It's one thing to have different speed limits from state to state; it's something else entirely if it's illegal for the vehicle you're in to be on the road in some states but not others. That's exactly what has happened in some states when lawmakers passed their own regulations.

But despite the emphasis on making way for innovation and experimentation, make no mistake: The NHTSA is also using the development of HAVs to lobby for more regulatory authority. Buried deeper into the report, after outlining the various processes for car manufacturers to get their vehicles approved, are requests for additional authority to control the process. One of those authorities they're asking for is pre-market approval of new vehicle types and technologies. Read this section and suddenly you might hear the sound of screeching tires in your head:

NHTSA adoption of a full pre-market approval approach for HAVs would entail replacing the self-certification process with at least two new statutory provisions. The first provision would prohibit the manufacture, introduction into commerce, offer for sale and sale of HAVs unless, prior to such actions, NHTSA has assessed the safety of the vehicle's performance and approved the vehicle. …

Substitution of pre-market approval for all standards for which manufacturers currently self-certify would be a wholesale structural change in the way NHTSA regulates motor vehicle safety and would require both fundamental statutory changes and a large increase in Agency resources.

A massive increase in Agency resources, you say? No kidding. The NHTSA uses the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) guidelines on drones as an example of how other agencies have this kind of pre-market approval authorities they're looking for. The problem with that example is that the FAA was absurdly slow to respond to the development of drones and attempted to block their private use entirely, an order most people ignored. And then the rules they put into place were absurdly broad in scope and discouraged innovation. The last place we should be looking for guidance for pre-market approval is the FAA.

Really, is there a government agency that has market approval authority that hasn't been awful at its job? We just had a massive hubbub over the high prices of EpiPens to halt allergic reactions. The manufacturer of that medicine is able to charge ridiculous prices entirely because the Food and Drug Administration is standing in the way of competition. Given that autonomous vehicles make people pretty nervous at the moment, there is likely going to be pressure on regulators to tip the scale heavily into "precautionary principle" territory and veto stuff that probably doesn't need to be vetoed.

So, while it's great that the administration is openly declaring support for automated vehicles, this push in the report for more regulatory authority should be a big warning flag.

For more about the government's meddling in automated vehicles, read Ron Bailey's cover story for Reason Magazine from July.

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  1. That’s funny, because cities seem to want choo-choos. Should be fun to watch this sort itself out.

    1. The self-driving cars will end up running on tracks.

      1. With a municipal employee in the drivers seat to take control in case something goes awry.

        1. For efficiency, the cars will be very large, and several will be hooked together at any given time.

          1. Actually, Volvo was working on something like that which would allow self-driving vehicles to follow a designated, human-controlled, “lead vehicle” on the highway. The goal was that you would join a vehicle train then you could sleep until you got near your exit.

        2. And a conductor to take the payment. Oh, and the thing has to weigh 100,000 lbs in order to absorb any crashes with other vehicles.

          1. Nah, they’ll have some kind of automated ticket-vendor at the stations. Did i mention that the cars would only stop at stations?

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  2. So we can have a debate over whether it should be legal to allow HAVs to drive in HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes.

    *sigh*

    You know, we *will* have this debate and it will be moot when we do as half the advantage of self-driving cars is they make HOV lanes *obsolete*.

    But we’ll still have HOV lanes, we’ll still have enforcement of occupancy requirements – because no one is going to give up potential ticket revenue and a virtue signalling opportunity even if that means leaving a whole lane completely empty. We’ll even be building more of them.

    1. I hate HOV lates with the heat of a thousand suns. But if I put my blue-city DOT planner hat on, I’m not sure why HAVs will make HOV lanes obsolete. A single occupancy vehicle is a single occupancy vehicle.

      1. HOV’s exist because existing car/human/road systems are choked to capacity and are there to encourage mult-user vehicles to reduce the number of cars using the road at once. Using the existing road system coupled with an HAV would massively increase existing-road capacity, clearing that jam and as such the best use of the HOV would be to turn it back into a regular traffic lane rather than leave it empty most of the time. Which, outside rush hours, its is even today.

        At least until the population increases enough (and the cities fail to keep updating road capacity) and then we end up back where we are today – just in fifty years later.

        1. Using the existing road system coupled with an HAV would massively increase existing-road capacity, clearing that jam and as such the best use of the HOV would be to turn it back into a regular traffic lane rather than leave it empty most of the time. Which, outside rush hours, its is even today.

          Yeah, if we’re damn near 100% HAVs, then the system will become more “intelligent”, but that’s a long way off. Also, I don’t know where YOU live, but HAVs are going to have an uphill road (from my perspective) because the planners didn’t just want you carpooling, they wanted you on the bus, and the HOV lane will likely remain so buses can be separated from regular traffic. Now we’re experimenting with toll HOV lanes, so there’s a revenue stream.

          I believe the rollout of HAVs, when coupled with regulation, plus their probably stuttered acceptance, the HOV lanes will be with us for a very long time. Planners don’t give up their territory easily.

          1. Where I live exists at the whim of Phoenix legislators. So even though I live in a rural town in a rural country and HAV’s would be a major boon, the restrictions we’ll have to abide by will be a combination of the technocratic impulses out of DC and whatever insanity the AZ legislature pulls out of their poop as they’re picking through it.

            But we have no HOV’s down here. I don’t think there are any anywhere in this whole state. Not surprising as we’re the 6th largest state and only have around 7 million people.

            1. But we have no HOV’s down here.

              I thought there were some in Phoenix on the Interstates.

              1. I don’t know – there might be some inside the PMA but I’m pretty sure the rest of the state, even Tucson, is free of them.

                Unlike, say, that San Diego to LA corridor.

          2. Now we’re experimenting with toll HOV lanes, so there’s a revenue stream.

            We’re doing that shit in Denver now too. They widened I-25 and US-36 to Boulder on the North side of town… and made the new lanes toll lanes. The first few weeks they were free while they were testing their camera systems and shit, and it was kind of nice. The additional lanes cut down significantly on the number of accidents and traffic clusterfucks. Once they started charging people to use the new lanes though, it went right back to the same old daily clusterfuck, only now there’s a whole extra lane sitting mostly empty.

            1. Do they adjust the toll based on traffic?

              The ones between SD and LA do – though for some reason they never are free, I think the cheapest I’ve seen them is 25 cents and that was in the middle of the night.

              1. Do they adjust the toll based on traffic?

                Yes.

                Those with an electronic pass for the U.S. 36 toll lane will be charged $7.60 from Interlocken to Denver during morning peak-travel time ? between 7:15 and 8:15. Those without a pass will be charged $13.68.

                1. 14 dollars to try to go 5 mphs faster.

                  1. The difference between averaging 5 MPH and averaging 10 mph . . .

                    1. Not even that though. The accordion is real.

            2. God I hate 36. And the new toll on i70 is insane. I’m not paying 6 bucks to get 3 exit’s after the tunnel. We needed a third lane. Paid by gas tax.

        2. IOW, “social engineering” as Floriday Hipster observed above.

          1. A state bordered by Georgiay and Alabamay.

            1. What’s Cubay, chopped liver?

        3. Nashville does the right thing and the HOV lane is a regular lane outside of rush hour. And only one rush hour, depending on direction. So into town is a 7-9 HOV lane and out of town is a 4-6 HOV lane.

  3. Obama and the NHTSA are your parents watching you do a wacky chemistry experiment for a science fair project making sure you don’t mix the wrong things together:

    Extend that analogy with ‘and they don’t know the difference between an acid and a base’.

  4. Regulation can go too far. Government sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to rapidly changing technologies. That’s why this new policy is flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.

    Over under on when this becomes ridiculously not true. 6 months? 7 months?

    1. Nah, the time to market is still too long. The policy won’t really lock in the chokehold until the vehicles are almost market-ready. 15 months?

  5. Essentially it’s similar to the separation of authorities over vehicles right now, but what they’re trying to do is prevent individual states (and cities) from creating their own rules about what an HAV must have or do in order to be allowed on the road. It’s one thing to have different speed limits from state to state; it’s something else entirely if it’s illegal for the vehicle you’re in to be on the road in some states but not others. That’s exactly what has happened in some states when lawmakers passed their own regulations.

    I have to wonder why Federal pre-emption is desirable here. We laugh at the EU for its attempts at ‘tax harmonization’, we instituted the Federal/State system specifically to allow legal experimentation to find best practices, yet we keep coming back to the Federal government making blanket rules that cover the whole country (because otherwise it’d be ‘inconvenient’ to drive from state to state’) – even though that completely throws experimentation out the window. We have to hope the Feds get it right and are flexible enough to adapt to regulatory mistakes.

    And they’ve never been so before.

    I think that if you genuinely support Federalism you have to be willing to deal with those problems when moving between jurisdictions – just like we do when moving between nations. We aren’t calling for, and would reject as a justification, a single world government instituted to smooth the way for travel and trade between nations.

    1. I think that if you genuinely support Federalism you have to be willing to deal with those problems when moving between jurisdictions

      We already deal with a lot of those issues now. What’s legal on your jacked up 4wd in one state probably isn’t legal in Pennsylvania. Yet people cross state lines all the time.

  6. “Feds guarantee automated vehicles will be more dangerous, more expensive, less reliable, and less timely.”

    1. I don’t know. Heavy Federal regulation and enthusiastic enforcement have done wonders for the pricing and availability of drugs.

      1. You mean the illegal ones, right? I just got a scrip for Chantix that, without my insurance (which thankfully pays 100% for anything related to smoking cessation) would have cost me almost two thousand dollars a month.

        Whereas weed is better and cheaper than when I was in high school.

        1. Illegal ones, yes.

          Maybe what we need is a ‘War on HAV’s’.

          1. Well, we don’t want to be a nation of HAVs v. HAV-nots.

        2. “I just got a scrip for Chantix that, without my insurance (which thankfully pays 100% for anything related to smoking cessation) would have cost me almost two thousand dollars a month.”

          Obamacare mandated that all smoking cessation drugs must be covered, so while you may not be paying the $2000, somebody certainly is, or Pfizer would have stopped manufacturing it.

  7. Not mentioned by Scott is that the new federal regulations REQUIRE that cars collect and share driving information. How long until the mileage tax is easy peasy for the government to enforce?

    1. How long until the mileage tax is easy peasy for the government to enforce?

      About 5 years ago.

    2. Even without regulation you’d be subject to “voluntary” data collection. You will be part of the botnet whether you want or not.

  8. There are always those who argue that government should stay out of free enterprise entirely, but I think most Americans would agree we still need rules to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe

    Without government regulations air and water would be poison, food would be poison, and medicine would be poison.

    Because greedy businesses make nothing but poison unless government tells them not to.

    1. Duh, killing your customers is a totes viable business strategy. Everyone who’s not a god-damned teabagger knows that.

      1. Exactly. Just imagine if we didnt have government regulation, jews would have no idea which foods they could eat.

        Fortunately, the Feds have defined exactly what Kosher means.

  9. Feds Want to Support Automated Cars. Oh, Also: They Want Much More Regulatory Authority

    You have to register a half-pound drone with the feds or face a big fine for not doing so. The FAA tells you where and how high you can fly it. And it is news that the Feds want to regulate autonomous cars?

    There won’t be the autonomous cars of your dreams, they will be government driven cars.

  10. I’m surprised John isn’t here to gloat about the first step of his prophecy coming to pass.

    1. John’s prophecy was the overregulation of automated vehicles? I would hardly think John is alone in that. I’d say that pretty much everyone who has two braincells to knock together knew this was coming.

      1. His prophecy was that eventually, the feds would be mandating that all cars be self driving.

        And this precertification process is the first cornerstone of that policy.

        1. Meh, when the unions get in legislator’s ear, that ain’t gonna happen.

        2. If there’s one goddamned transportation technology that has automation written all over it, it’s when your wheels are trapped on two steel rails, and yet that’s an uphill battle.

          1. I think it was in the early 2000’s when they got rid of the last of the Firemen. After starting the downsizing in 1985. And that still required a ‘Presidential Mediation Board’ to get the idea to stick.

            26 years after the change from steam to diesel was completed and then another 15 to finish it.

            1. It took until the 1980s to get rid of the caboose and whoever was hauled around in it.

              1. The Conductor and Rear Brakeman. Now freight trains are Engineer and Conductor only.

  11. The good news is that the federal government genuinely does want self-driving or automated vehicles to happen.

    Why does what the Federal Government “wants” have anything to do with it?

    and i’m not sure that the Federal Government wanting anything is ever “good news”

  12. Feds Want to Support Automated Cars. Oh, Also: They Want Much More Regulatory Authority.

    Which means they’ll end up hampering the development of automated cars instead of supporting it. But that doesn’t matter, because “intentions.”

  13. Substitution of pre-market approval for all standards for which manufacturers currently self-certify would be a wholesale structural change in the way NHTSA regulates motor vehicle safety and would require both fundamental statutory changes and a large increase in Agency resources.

    This sentence is pretty much a master course in “how to build and/or increase your bureaucratic fiefdom.”

    Bravo, NHTSA, brah-fucking-vo *sarcastic slow clap*

  14. There are always those who argue

    Ah yes, the old “There are those who say…” rhetorical device. I have to admit I’m gonna miss that when Obama leaves office. It was a nice, easy signal that what ever follows is a bunch of strawman bashing and utter horseshit.

  15. Driverless highway from Vancouver to Seattle proposed

    Vancouver and Seattle should be connected by a driverless highway, according to some high-tech entrepreneurs.

    The proposal, which involves dedicating at least one lane on the I-5 from Seattle to Highway 99 in Richmond, B.C., is a pitch that comes from Tom Alberg, a board member of Amazon, Craig Mundie, a former Microsoft executive, along with two other high tech industry experts.

  16. A whole new area of regulation is a whole new way for our government to find a way to pad their salary. As soon as we have some well established incumbents, we’ll start getting some solid regulations.

  17. Perhaps a luddite, but it seems to me that this technology is one of those things that billionaire investors and tech moguls love the idea of yet I haven’t seen anyone in the media mention how the only possible way something like this could work is if they were mandatory. As in, any car made in the future must be either entirely automated, of have the capacity to be remotely triggered to be automated. Thusly all ‘gas guzzler’ vehicles would be illegal overnight, which is probably part of the appeal as far as the government is concerned.

    Thankfully, this technology appears to be impossible otherwise so the public is unlikely to be on board with this any time soon. I would expect a few of the more progressive cities who don’t value freedom will mandate their use to all but even that is probably 10-20 years into the future.

    So yeah, this is one of those things that people love to talk about but isn’t really feasible until you can teach a computer to predict humans 99-100% of the time. Thank god.

  18. Everything that is not specifically permitted, is banned!
    Bow to our DoT Overlords.

  19. I am sure engineers will make sure automated drive cars are safe,
    as regards traffic accidents. Probably safer than human drivers.
    The two big dangers of automated cars are

    * Massive unemployment and wage declines due to the loss
    of millions of jobs that pay more than minimum wage.

    * Attack on the privacy of all of us, if automated taxis
    don’t allow people to call for a ride anonymously and pay
    for it with anonymous cash. See stallman.org/uber.html
    for how Uber snoops on its users. We need government regulations
    to stop Uber from doing this

  20. yes, self driving cars will serve the government well. No one will go anywhere the government does not want you to, because they can control the maps the software uses. Got a monitoring station, military installation, or spy device you want left alone, the government controlled database for the self driving cars takes car of that.

    Say something on Reason they don’t like, well, just direct an override to your self driving car to bring you in for questioning.

    Yep, sounds like a WONDERFUL idea. Don’t worry, “government is just the name we give to things we do together”.

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