As Google and traditional automakers such as Ford and General Motors continue making strides in autonomous vehicle development, they're going to need federal regulators to loosen up on some of the red tape that could prevent them from hitting the road with self-driving cars sooner rather than later.
That's precisely why Google and other auto execs in the autonomous space convened at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to attend a hearing called Hands Off: The Future of Self-Driving Cars, held before Senator John Thune and his peers.
The overwhelming sentiment addressed? Creating national laws for autonomous vehicles that would supersede and prevent the entanglement of state regulations, which could differ from state to state, creating a giant mess.
More than anyone, Dr. Chris Urmson of Google's Self-Driving Car Project led that charge for such national regulations to be adopted quickly, so that the development of driverless cars is put on the fast track in the United States.
"The leadership of the federal government is critically important given the growing patchwork of State laws and regulations on selfdriving cars," he testified before Congress on Tuesday. "Last December, we were disappointed that California released draft regulations for operation of autonomous vehicles that specifically excluded fully selfdriving cars, despite strong public support for this technology, particularly from the disability community.
"Further, in the past two years, 23 states have introduced 53 pieces of legislation that affect selfdriving cars — all of which include different approaches and concepts. Five states have passed such legislation, and — although all were intended to assist the development of the technology in the state — none of those laws feature common definitions, licensing structures or sets of expectations for what manufacturers should be doing," he continued. "If every state is left to go its own way without a unified approach, operating selfdriving cars across state boundaries would be an unworkable situation and one that will significantly hinder safety innovation, interstate commerce, national competitiveness, and the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles."
Other panelists backed Urmson, concurring that a uniform set of national laws for autonomous cars is needed.
Urmson said that autonomous vehicles also stand the chance to help save lives, urging the government to give Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx the authority to approve new technologies quickly.
"When we look at the 38,000 people that Nhtsa (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) estimates were killed last year on America's roads, it's really an unacceptable status quo," Urmson added. "And there's so much opportunity to do good here. Now the technology will never be perfect, but the opportunity to reduce those accidents and those tragedies is incredible."
Urmson, who was joined before Congress by auto execs from GM, Delphi and Lyft, received criticism and doubt on the same panel, as evidenced by Dr. Mary Louise Cummings, the director of Humans and Autonomy Lab and Duke Robotics at Duke University.
Cummings flat-out said the Nhtsa should set the tone in creating uniform guidelines for autonomous vehicle testing by which companies like Google and automakers must abide. Furthermore, she wasn't impressed with Google's boast of two million autonomous miles accident-free.
"New York taxi cabs drive two million miles in a day an a half," she countered. "This two-million-mile assertion is indicative of a larger problem in robotics, especially in self-driving cars and drones, where demonstrations are substituted for rigorous testing."
She added: "I am decidedly less optimistic about what I perceive to be a rush to field systems that are absolutely not ready for widespread deployment, and certainly not ready for humans to be completely taken out of the driver's seat."
She wasn't the only one casting doubt Tuesday, indicating it could be well past 2020 — the targeted year for autonomous cars to hit the road by many companies involved — before self-driving vehicles are available and used widespread.
Senator Bill Nelson experienced a ride in a Tesla Model S while on "autopilot," sharing that he couldn't resist his urge to take the wheel.
"I'm in the Tesla and we're coming back across the Anacostia River and getting up on the bridge to get onto the ramp on 395," Nelson said, as reported by ABC News. "And I'm instructed, in the driver's seat, 'Engage the autonomous switch.' I click it twice. 'Take your hands off the wheel.'
"So all of a sudden, the car is speeding up, and they say it automatically will go with the flow of the vehicles in the front and back," he continued. "But now we are approaching the ramp and it is a sharp turn, and the vehicle is still speeding up. And they said, 'Trust the vehicle.' As we approach the concrete wall, my instincts could not resist. And I grabbed the wheel, touched the brake and took over manual control."
While the open-dialog between the companies involved and Senators at Tuesday's Congressional hearing is a healthy start, it's probably one of many, many talks that await in the near future ... well before autonomous cars hit the road.