What Will It Take To Get You In This (Autonomous) Car Today?

What if it passed an automated vehicle driving test?

While autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being tested by Google and others on the streets of Mountain View, California, and other city locales, these AVs are currently only able to operate as test vehicles while supervised by a licensed operator. In order to be able to drive by themselves, fully autonomous vehicles are going to need to show they are ready for independent operation, without a human driver in the passenger seat ready to grab the wheel. What permissions will AVs need in order to drive solo in fully autonomous mode? Will they need to pass a driving test?

This will likely come down to two questions: What will the regulators require to ensure safety? And what will consumers need in order to accept AVs in the market?

First, what will regulators require to demonstrate AVs are ready for safe operation on public streets? Will manufacturers need to show that AVs are better than human drivers on a statistical basis after hundreds of millions of miles driven? Or will they be able to demonstrate safety by passing a skills test that shows AVs can drive safely and handle various obstacles, stop signs, signals, pedestrians, etc.? Will formal testing be required or will companies self-certify compliance with federal safety standards?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is due to publish operational guidance for AVs and model policies for states later this summer. We will see what the regulators require and whether a single national standard can be adopted to eliminate the conflicting state regulations currently being proposed. A patchwork of different state regulations for AVs would be difficult, as many of the manufacturers noted recently in their comments to NHTSA.

Second, what will it take for consumers to actually adopt AVs? What assurances will consumers need before they are willing to hop in an Uber or Lyft that doesn’t have a human driver? Or an autonomous public transit bus? What will fleet operators and cities want to see before they incur the liability associated with putting passengers in AVs? What will it take to get consumers to buy an AV without a steering wheel? Despite all the news about advances in self-driving cars, there is still a fair amount of skepticsm about turning over the wheel, or not having a wheel at all. The University of Michigan published a study recently showing that attitudes in their survey have not changed in the past two years, and “the most frequent preference for vehicle automation continues to be for no self-driving capability.” Perhaps none of these survey respondents has ever set foot in an AV, or spent time on streets where AVs are operating (albeit in test mode), so this may reflect a simple lack of knowledge and experience with the technology. Nonetheless, the skepticism about AVs will need to be addressed in order to promote adoption of the technology. What will it take?

One approach that may satisfy both constituencies is an automated vehicle driving test (AVDT) which could demonstrate safety and compliance with regulatory standards, and also provide a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval through verified test results and videos to use for consumer education and marketing. The test results could also serve gatekeeping functions for state registration, insurance and liability purposes.

How might an AVDT work?

Who: It seems like NHTSA could run a testing program, and it would be better to have a single national standard than different state tests. States could opt in to accept a national AVDT as a registration requirement. The test could either be mandatory, or voluntary with carrots to encourage it, depending on how NHTSA frames the regulatory scheme.

What: The AVDT could evolve and change over time, but fundamentally would test all the evaluation scenarios identified by NHTSA. Manufacturers would bring their AVs down to the track and run them through paces to test all aspects of operation for normal driving, crash avoidance, handling obstacles, weather conditions, night time driving, roads with no lane markings, communications systems, signaling, etc. There might even be a trolley problem or two.

Where: There are already several test tracks in use and being further developed, in Michigan (M City, Willow Run) and Northern California (GoMentum Station), which could serve as testing sites for AVs. Manufacturers could pay fees for testing to support the facilities.

When: One of the trickiest issues for any AVDT would be how often to test the AVs in light of frequently changing AI running the vehicle. If the AVs use convolutional neural networks and deep learning to improve the vehicle daily and updates are sent to the AVs weekly, must the car be re-tested every week or would there be interim self-certifications? It would likely depend on whether regulators require the testing or if it is adopted as a voluntary standard.

Use of AVDT Test Results
Regulatory: Depending on what NHTSA requires, an AVDT could be part of a required regulatory scheme prior to operation and sale of the AV. Or if not required by NHTSA, it could be a voluntary process used by manufacturers to document self-certification processes, or it could be encouraged or required by states as part of the vehicle registration process.

Industry: Even if not mandated by regulation, an AVDT could be developed by the industry as a seal of approval to encourage consumer adoption and to provide education and marketing materials for manufacturers to encourage buyers.

Consumer Advocacy: Third parties such as consumer advocacy groups might consider developing their own tests, similar to what Consumer Reports and other organizations have done with regular vehicles, to provide consumers with a standard measure to judge AVs when they are approved for sale or use.

Insurance: Insurance companies might require passing an AVDT, even if it’s not mandated by NHTSA or states, or rates might be determined initially by scores on such tests. Insurance companies might even want to participate in the testing or offer additional testing to qualify for better rates.

Liability rules: Much has been written about who will be liable when AVs are involved in accidents. Lawyers on both sides of product liability cases would likely use information from AVDTs to prosecute and defend claims. Passage of an AVDT might help AVs in defending against design defect and other liability suits.

Next Steps

While NHTSA will likely provide guidance on the regulatory scheme soon, it may take time before we know exactly what formal testing, if any, the government will require, or if it will only require self-certification of compliance with federal safety standards. Regardless of the approach the federal and state regulators take, the industry may want to consider using an AVDT for self-certification processes or to help consumers and fleet operators get comfortable turning over the wheel to AVs. Hopefully AVs won’t need to turn 16 before they can pass a driving test with flying colors and bring tremendous safety benefits to our public roads.