Issues in regulating robocars, and the case for a light hand

04 March 2015

share this:

whitehouseAll over the world, people (and governments) are debating about regulations for robocars. First for testing, and then for operation. It mostly began when Google encouraged the state of Nevada to write regulations, but now it’s in full force. The topic is so hot that there is a danger that regulations might be drafted long before the shape of the first commercial deployments of the technology take place.

In the pre-history of robocars, it was common to say that it would be ages before they were legal. Then, at least in some countries, groups like Google discovered they were already legal by default, at least for testing. When the vehicle codes were written long ago, nobody thought to say “no robots.”

A few places have laws that require that certain driving activities be done by humans, but many don’t. Even so, Google and a few others sought to make the regulatory status of the cars more clear. Soon the state of Nevada passed a bill requiring their DMV to write regulations. Several other states passed similar laws. The first regulations mostly defined testing, and some are leading to covering operation — first under human supervision, eventually without a person in the car.

At the same time, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA,) which writes the safety standards for car manufacturers — the rules that demand seatbelts, airbags and electronic stability control — were encouraged to see what their role should be. They published a document defining a taxonomy of vehicles and suggestions on how to regulate them.

The first reaction of many is, “of course.” It’s common to think that it would be strange to put these vehicles on the road without the government certifying them and laying out standards for how they should work. Contrary to that intuition, that is not the way government regulation of automotive technologies has worked, nor the way it should work. And that turns out to be even more true for robocars than the technologies that came before them.

To address some of these issues, I have prepared a new special article on the issues around regulating robocars. The article concludes that in spite of a frequent claim that we want to regulate and standarize even before the technology has been out in the market for a while, this is in fact both a highly unusual approach, and possibly even a dangerous approach. In summary:

  • Regulations are normally developed long after technologies are in the market, not before they are developed. That’s true for almost all automotive safety technologies, like seat belts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, and more.
  • When regulations do come, their usual purpose is not to govern how to build the safety technologies, but to demand that the car makers that are not including them start including them.
  • Many of the driving-related technologies — adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-keeping, automatic parking, forward collision warning and avoidance and blindspot warning — all remain unregulated today.
  • Self-certification by the vendor is the norm, not the exception. While some things (like crash tests) are done by the government or insurance labs, most testing and certification is done by vendors.
  • Tort law already provides a strong legal force for safety, and in fact it may already be too strong rather than not strong enough.
  • Even the builders of robocars have not yet figured out precisely how they will attain and test their safety goals, so we are at least a decade out from regulators figuring that out. The technology is changing so fast they may never catch up, requiring other solutions.
  • We need to protect the ability of small players and tinkerers to innovate, even with dangerous technology like cars — just as we always have.

The full article is available on Regulating Robocar Safety: An examination of the issues around regulating robocar safety and the case for a very light touch.

tags: , , , , , ,

Brad Templeton, is an EFF board member, Singularity U faculty, a self-driving car consultant, and entrepreneur.
Brad Templeton, is an EFF board member, Singularity U faculty, a self-driving car consultant, and entrepreneur.

Related posts :

Robotics Today latest talks – Raia Hadsell (DeepMind), Koushil Sreenath (UC Berkeley) and Antonio Bicchi (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia)

Robotics Today held three more online talks since we published the one from Amanda Prorok (Learning to Communicate in Multi-Agent Systems). In this post we bring you the last talks that Robotics Today (currently on hiatus) uploaded to their YouTube channel: Raia Hadsell from DeepMind talking about ‘Scalable Robot Learning in Rich Environments’, Koushil Sreenath from UC Berkeley talking about ‘Safety-Critical Control for Dynamic Robots’, and Antonio Bicchi from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia talking about ‘Planning and Learning Interaction with Variable Impedance’.
21 October 2021, by and

Sense Think Act Pocast: Erik Schluntz

In this episode, Audrow Nash interviews Erik Schluntz, co-founder and CTO of Cobalt Robotics, which makes a security guard robot. Erik speaks about how their robot handles elevators, how they have hum...
19 October 2021, by and

A robot that finds lost items

Researchers at MIT have created RFusion, a robotic arm with a camera and radio frequency (RF) antenna attached to its gripper, that fuses signals from the antenna with visual input from the camera to locate and retrieve an item, even if the item is buried under a pile and completely out of view.
18 October 2021, by

Robohub gets a fresh look

If you visited Robohub this week, you may have spotted a big change: how this blog looks now! On Tuesday (coinciding with Ada Lovelace Day and our ‘50 women in robotics that you need to know about‘ by chance), Robohub got a massive modernisation on its look by our technical director Ioannis K. Erripis and his team.
17 October 2021, by



High Capacity Ride Sharing, with Alex Wallar

In this episode, our interviewer Lilly speaks to Alex Wallar, co-founder and CTO of The Routing Company. Wallar shares his background in multi-robot path-planning and optimization, and his research on scheduling and routing algorithms for high-capacity ride-sharing. They discuss how The Routing Company helps cities meet the needs of their people, the technical ins and outs of their dispatcher and assignment system, and the importance of public transit to cities and their economics.
12 October 2021, by

50 women in robotics you need to know about 2021

It’s Ada Lovelace Day and once again we’re delighted to introduce you to “50 women in robotics you need to know about”! From the Afghanistan Girls Robotics Team to K.G.Engelhardt who in 1989 ...
12 October 2021, by and

©2021 - ROBOTS Association


©2021 - ROBOTS Association