Automakers Examine State Role in Autonomous Vehicle Policy

CSG convened the Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Policy Academy June 12-14, 2017 in Detroit. A group of state policymakers from around the country attended the event. The academy included an opening panel on June 12 featuring Jonathan Weinberger of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing 12 of the largest U.S. automakers, and Steve Gehring of the Association of Global Automakers, which represents 12 international auto companies with operations in the United States. Later, Doug Longhitano of Honda, Hilary Cain of Toyota and Harry Lightsey of General Motors joined the discussion.

The automotive industry finds itself at a crossroads, according to Jonathan Weinberger, vice president of tech policy at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He likens the transition to autonomous and connected vehicles to a transition from an analog era to a digital era, where a world of possibility and opportunity is about to open up for many populations who aren’t mobile now and where all will benefit from safer travel.

“The faster we can test and deploy these automated technologies, the more lives we’re going to save,” Weinberger said.

Doug Longhitano, manager of connected and automated vehicle technology at Honda highlighted the increased mobility issue.

“We also with (autonomous vehicles) have the potential to contribute to bettering society by enhancing the ability to provide mobility to members of the community who are disabled, who are aging, who have limitations that would prevent them from driving a car today but who would be able to harness automated transportation in the future to help get them around independently,” Longhitano said.

Steve Gehring, who is vice president for vehicle safety and connected automation at Global Automakers, told policy academy attendees his member companies also are excited about the potential of autonomous and connected vehicles to save lives, time and fuel. But he acknowledged that fully automated vehicles won’t get here overnight.

“This is going to be a journey that we’re going to be on for many years but that has tremendous promise for improving vehicle safety and getting to a certain extent the driver over time out of the loop where the vehicle takes on more of the driving tasks,” he said. “We’re not going to see consumers going out and buying fully automated vehicles here in the near future. We’ll probably start seeing fully automated vehicles in fleets to start with. But we’re going to have a mix of vehicles on the road for quite a while and those vehicles are going to get more and more capable in helping to avoid crashes and to assist the driver.”

Hilary Cain, director of technology and innovation policy at Toyota, had a message for policymakers and the public about what the future may hold: be patient.

“Testing is a means to an end,” she said. “We all share the goal of having these vehicles be as safe as they can possibly be. You don’t just snap your fingers and get there. You have to test and iterate and test and iterate to get to a safe vehicle. So we can’t have an expectation that the vehicles that are being used for testing are going to be as safe as the vehicles are going to be when they’re ready for deployment. It’s an impossibility. And so you have to bear with the development community.”

What consumers can expect to see sooner however are lower level autonomous technologies to assist drivers that could nevertheless have a big impact on safety. For example, Gehring said the auto industry has agreed to make automatic emergency braking systems standard on all new light vehicles by the early part of the next decade.

Meanwhile states will play an important role in providing test beds for vehicles with higher levels of automation, Gehring said. He pointed to the proving grounds already open or planned in states such as California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

“We think there should be work done to facilitate testing of (autonomous vehicles in states),” he said. “We’ve seen recently in Washington and Wisconsin executive orders that look to help facilitate testing in the state, to get various stakeholders to learn about (autonomous vehicles) and get some experience with the technology.”

State & Federal Roles in Autonomous Vehicle Policy

But Gehring said many in the auto industry see specific, vehicle-based legislation at the state level as potentially problematic for a significant reason.

“We think a consistent national framework is important,” he said. “We’re wanting to avoid a state patchwork of regulations and laws at least at this point while we’re still testing as an industry.

Gehring said state policymakers are better off leaving things like vehicle design and safety requirements in the capable hands of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency that last year issued the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.  

“NHTSA and DOT plan to reissue the AV policy guidance (later this year) that talks about potential state roles, that talks about the federal role, the role of (original equipment manufacturers),” Gehring said. “We think that’s a good framework to start working from and we look forward to that document being updated and engaging in that conversation with NHTSA.”

Congress is reportedly also considering legislation that could prohibit states and municipalities from enacting their own laws and regulations around vehicle safety and performance standards.

Weinberger said despite the efforts of NHTSA and automakers to warn of the dangers of a patchwork of laws around the country, 2017 saw in the neighborhood of 70 autonomous vehicle bills introduced in 30 states during legislative sessions.

“And I know a lot of the states have good intentions in bringing up these regulations or legislation because they want to encourage testing in their states,” he said. “The problem is when there are different standards in different bills in different states, it makes it very difficult for the automakers to figure out where to go and where to test.”

He offered an example of how differences in state requirements can make things challenging.

“I was in an autonomous car the other day (made by) a German company and they said when they go from California to Nevada they stop at the state line, they get out, they take off their California tags, put on a Nevada tag and switch their insurance because there are different rules between the two states,” he said.

Cain said her company has felt those differences in state regimes as well.

“Toyota is doing a lot of work on automated technologies here in the United States and we’re primarily doing that in three locations: we are doing that in California, we are doing that here in Michigan and we are doing that in Massachusetts,” she said. “What I can tell you right now … (is) the only state (where) we are testing on public roads is Michigan. So what I will lead you to conclude is that perhaps the regulatory frameworks that are in place in California and Massachusetts are more challenging for us than the regulatory framework that’s in place in Michigan. And that’s just something that you as policymakers have to grapple with.”

Besides Washington and Wisconsin, Gehring points to Arizona, Ohio and Virginia as other examples of states that have approached autonomous vehicle policy without enacting legislation that can be overly restrictive or limiting. In addition, he highlighted the Smart Belt Coalition, an effort by state agencies and academic institutions in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to collaborate on autonomous vehicle development.

But not all automakers are telling states not to take legislative action. General Motors has been a notable exception, actively pursuing bills in some states in 2017.

Harry Lightsey, executive director for emerging technologies policy at GM, told policy academy attendees one reason for that is that his company sees a near-term opportunity to introduce level 4 highly automated vehicles that would not require a human driver as part of rideshare fleets in the next couple of years. The company has a growing test fleet of over 50 vehicles being tested on public roads in San Francisco, Detroit and Scottsdale, Arizona.

But Lightsey noted that GM is hedging its bets and also working on another path toward automation, one that involves level 3 conditional automation that still requires an engaged driver.

“We view the development of automated driving technology as not a linear development,” he said. “We’re going to deploy a vehicle that functions on the highway both hands off the wheel, feet off the pedal in the next few months, later this year—the Cadillac CT-6. We will expect the driver to be engaged and be aware of what’s going on around him and be ready to take over the vehicle at any time.”

Lightsey said it is these two competing visions of the autonomous vehicle future that have prompted GM to engage with state policymakers across the country.

“We’ve taken a look at the laws in the 50 states and at least up until Michigan passed its law in 2016, we thought that every state had a vehicle code that either required that there be a person behind the wheel driving the vehicle or certainly assumed that there was a person behind the wheel driving the vehicle,” he said. “And so we think it’s critical that states have to take that first step of making it clear that it is legal and authorized to put a vehicle on the road without a human being behind the wheel. … So we think it’s critical for policymakers to take that first step with us, allow us to begin to put these vehicles on the road and then we can all work together to address what policy issues come out of that.”

Education, Safety Keys to Public Acceptance

Panelists agreed there is one activity state policymakers can participate in that will help drive the autonomous vehicle future forward.

“We as an industry and I think as governments have a burden and a challenge to figure out how to educate people on how great these technologies are and how safe they can be and how many lives they can save and how much easier it will make your life and less traffic and all that kind of stuff,” Weinberger said. “We have quite a task ahead of us.”

Honda’s Longhitano said consumers will need to have confidence and trust in the technology.

“Right now when you talk to people in the public, there are some people really excited about automated vehicles but most people are skeptical,” he said.

Toyota’s Cain said consumer opinions and consumer preferences will largely determine how the autonomous vehicle market evolves in the years ahead.

“Your guess is as good as my guess about whether most folks are going to want lower levels of automation … active safety systems or whether consumers are actually going to want these very highly automated, fully autonomous-type vehicles,” she said. “My suspicion is that different consumers are going to want different things. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of scenario. Folks in urban centers might be very interested in your very highly autonomous ridesharing sort of model. There may be someone in a rural community that doesn’t resonate with and they’re going to want a personally owned vehicle.”

GM’s Lightsey said regardless of how things evolve one thing must be the guiding star for automakers: safety.

“I think safety will be the key to public acceptance,” he said. “The public needs to know that they can rely on these vehicles to get them from point A to point B and deliver them to where they want to go in a safe manner. Whatever policy we adopt, we have to assure the public that safety is our topmost concern.”


CSG thanks the Association of Global Automakers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Audi for their support of the 2017 Autonomous & Connected Vehicle Policy Academy.