The Industry

Does the Senate Know Anything About Self-Driving Cars?

A handful of senators are holding up a bill to get more autonomous vehicles on the road. Do they know what they’re talking about?

A self-driving car.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images; chombosan/iStock.

Companies around the world are aggressively working toward making self-driving cars a reality. As consumers see fewer reasons to own a car and transportation industries aim to streamline efforts and cut costs, technology giants and automakers are all vying to lead what’s shaping up to be a popular and lucrative industry. They’re launching pilot programs and racking up millions of miles. However, there’s currently a major roadblock barring further progress: the Senate.

After the House in September 2017 swiftly passed the SELF DRIVE Act, a bill that could allow up to 100,000 fully autonomous vehicles to begin testing on our nation’s roadways, a handful of U.S. senators are barring similar legislation from passing in their chamber. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in particular, has emerged as a vocal opponent of the proposed bill—the AV START Act—in its current form.

While Feinstein and other senators’ concerns don’t exactly reflect the majority of Americans’ sentiments about driverless cars, their votes do. A Pew Research Center poll found that fewer than half of Americans say they’d choose to ride in a self-driving vehicle. However, it’s not out of fears about the technology’s maturity, the threat of their digital systems being remotely hijacked, or general safety concerns: Most of those surveyed simply don’t want to cede control to a robotic car. These senators, however, have more varied reasons for their apprehension about the rapid deployment of autonomous car technology, and some are more valid than others.

The technology can’t be trusted
“People need to be assured, and they need to be assured over time,” Feinstein told Recode.

This remark is completely valid. Trust is certainly earned, and autonomous-vehicle makers don’t want to put a car out on the road that’s going to be a demonstrable danger to the public. That’s not good business sense, and it’s detrimental to the future of the field.

In that regard, these companies have been developing, iterating, and testing their work in an ever-growing capacity. Startups such as Google’s Waymo spinoff, for example, have been testing self-driving car technology for the better part of a decade now. Self-driving car pilots are taking place all over the country—ride-share company Lyft has begun testing in Boston and Las Vegas, while competitor Uber has vehicles driving in Tempe, Arizona, and Pittsburgh. Waymo has a beta program in Phoenix and has even begun testing vehicles on public roadways sans a human technician behind the wheel. Volvo, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and others are working on various aspects of self-driving car technology and testing as well.

Testing should be done in remote areas
“I think you go to less complicated areas to do your testing, not in the middle of jammed freeways with frustrated drivers,” Feinstein said in December 2017.

The problem is, that is exactly what these companies are already doing—they’re testing their vehicles in and around their own campuses, in cities that present fewer (or very specific) challenges to their cars, and in retirement communities with low speed limits and preplanned, logically laid out road maps. Some of these companies—not every company, necessarily—are ready to take that next step and put their vehicles on high-speed roadways alongside living, breathing humans.

It’s also worth noting that these companies aren’t just looking to best one another at creating the first publicly available self-driving vehicle. They are also working to beat international competitors, specifically autonomous car developments in China, where companies face far less legislative pushback and far more consumer support than they do here in the U.S. China may already have an edge: It recently opened up select roadways for autonomous vehicle testing and is already testing out a self-driving bus project.

Preventing U.S. companies from expanding their testing efforts on our nation’s major arteries could bar American companies from leading in this space.

The technology is “untested”
“I do not want untested autonomous vehicles on the freeways which are complicated, move fast and are loaded with huge trucks,” Feinstein said.

Autonomous vehicles are far from being untested, as we mentioned above. Thus far, there has been only one death linked to anonymous driving capabilities, and in many tests conducted, self-driving vehicles are as good or better than human drivers at avoiding collisions. However, one way Feinstein’s issue could be mitigated is through dedicated self-driving car lanes on highways, as Wisconsin is preparing for. This would remove complications like frequent lane shifts and would keep the cars out of the way of semitrucks (although bicycles are a far more challenging concern than large trucks for self-driving cars).

It’s also worth considering that California legislators have already paved the way for self-driving cars to start navigating freeways in 2018, and semi-autonomous cars are already proliferating roadways. Autonomous vehicle makers are hoping to begin hitting the roads in earnest within the next few years. Federal legislators would do well to ensure appropriate legal safeguards are in place when that happens, even if it’s something they personally “do not want.”

General privacy, safety, and security concerns
“Rather than addressing the cybersecurity problems after a hack has occurred, we must ensure that robust cybersecurity protections are built into the design, the construction, and operation of these transportation technologies,” Sen. Ed Markey said in June 2017. “We should not have to choose, as Americans, from being connected and being protected.”

Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Markey have both also expressed opposition to the proposed Senate bill. However, the latter two Democratic representatives have clearly defined issues with the bill that can be addressed. Blumenthal, for example, told Bloomberg Government that he was “optimistic” that his concerns regarding safety and security would be resolved; in December 2017, Markey reportedly planned to propose an amendment that would address his own privacy and cybersecurity concerns.

Earlier this week, Markey elaborated on his very reasonable-sounding issues. “If we are to imagine a world where massive 18-wheelers carrying hazardous materials and minivans full of children can drive themselves, it shouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to envision that these vehicles may be targets of cyberattacks and safety vulnerabilities,” Markey said.

Markey’s concerns demonstrate a clear understanding of the space and the ways that connected car technology and A.I. could be used against us. In a hearing last summer, carmakers were reluctant to give firm answers with regard to how their vehicles would be protected against such threats, and it is an issue that should be resolved, as best as possible, before these cars start driving on roadways en masse.

Humans will freak out when they see a car with no driver
“[Y]ou can’t just dump something on a freeway and have people looking over saying, ‘My God, there’s no driver,’ ” Feinstein said.

Seriously? The best solution here is that people will get used to the idea of looking over and seeing that there isn’t a human driver next to them. However, to start, it’s feasible that self-driving cars on highways will follow the same example they’ve set on city streets: proving their worth with a human technician behind the wheel until they’re ready for solo trips.

But unless they’re trying to merge, it’s probably best for human drivers to just keep their eyes up the road.