Hearing Examines Future Vehicle Technologies

Senate Committee emphasizes safety, federal regulation and cybersecurity.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, convened a hearing titled “Hands Off: The Future of Self-Driving Cars,” chaired by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

The hearing explored advancements in autonomous vehicle technology and its anticipated benefits for Americans. Witnesses were asked to discuss their continued efforts to develop automated vehicles, their views on the appropriate role of government in promoting innovation, including removing unnecessary hurdles, and their strategy to grow consumer adoption of this new technology.

Witnesses included:

• Dr. Chris Urmson, director of Self-Driving Cars, Google X
• Mike Ableson, vice president, Strategy and Global Portfolio Planning, General Motors Co.
• Glen DeVos, vice president, Global Engineering and Services, Electronics and Safety, Delphi Automotive
• Joseph Okpaku, vice president of Government Relations, Lyft
• Dr. Mary (Missy) Louise Cummings, director, Humans and Autonomy Lab and Duke Robotics, Duke University

The tone for the hearing was set early when Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., emphasized that, “The technologies of today and tomorrow must be safe from cyber threats and protect users’ privacy. We must avoid a patchwork of state regulations that will only stunt the development and deployment of these technologies and instead work to implement a consistent national policy. We must think carefully about the insurance implications of connected and automated cars and the possibility of liability shifting to the manufacturers as human control of the vehicles dissipates – potentially resulting in greater cost for coverage. And finally, we must increase our investments in connected and automated vehicle research and development.”

Peters and others highlighted the importance of more research in the area of connected and automated vehicle technologies. President Obama has proposed $4 billion over 10 years for the fiscal year 2017 budget to encourage the development and deployment of automated vehicles.

“But we have to get the technology right so that self-driving cars live up to their full promise,” said ranking member Bill Nelson, D-Fla., discussing the importance of federal regulation vs. state regulation in the area of cybersecurity. “Congress and the federal government must play a critical role, and that means we must foster a regulatory and legal environment in which American businesses are able to develop and manufacture these vehicles.

“But it also means that we must exercise responsible oversight by asking the tough questions today to make sure these cars of tomorrow are safe for the public. As we have seen with both the Takata airbag crisis and the GM ignition switch recall, individual components of vehicles with defects can snowball into big problems.”

However, Nelson went on to say that the stakes are higher with autonomous cars. “For example, can you imagine what would happen if a little cybersecurity flaw allowed thousands – or even millions – of autonomous vehicles to get hacked while they are out on the road? One small defect could lead to a massive safety crisis. Safety has to be built into these vehicles.”

Urmson responded that one of Google X’s goals for the project was to make driving safer. Noting that 38,000 Americans died in auto accidents in 2015, 12 million globally, he said that “these are numbers that could be reduced significantly with fully self-driving cars, especially since 94 percent of accidents in the United States are due to human error.”

Reiterating the federal vs. state regulation dilemma for autonomous vehicles, he also testified that, “The leadership of the federal government is critically important given the growing patchwork of state laws and regulations on self-driving cars. Last December, we were disappointed that California released draft regulations for operation of autonomous vehicles that specifically excluded fully self-driving 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 self-driving cars – all of which include different approaches and concepts,” Urmson said. “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.

“If every state is left to go its own way without a unified approach, operating self-driving 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.”

Cummings expressed caution when discussing the vehicle population moving to self-driving cars. She took a more pragmatic approach on safety, technology and cybersecurity.

“The development of self-driving car technologies has led to important advances in automotive safety, including lane-departure prevention and crash-avoidance systems,” Cummings said. “While such advances are necessary stepping-stones toward fully capable self-driving cars, going from automated lane changing or automated parking to a car that can autonomously execute safe control under all possible driving conditions is a huge leap that companies are not ready to make.”

Cummings cited a few scenarios that highlight limitations of current self-driving car technologies. The first, she said, is operation in bad weather, including standing water on roadways, drizzling rain, sudden downpours and snow. Cummings noted these limitations will be especially problematic when coupled with the inability of self-driving cars to follow a traffic policeman’s gestures.

Another major problem with self-driving cars, Cummings said, is their vulnerability to malevolent or prankster intent. “Self-driving cars’ physical cybersecurity issues are real,” she said, “and will have to be addressed before any widespread deployment of this technology occurs. For example, it’s relatively easy to spoof the global positioning system (GPS) of self-driving vehicles, which involves hacking into their systems and guiding them off course.

“Without proper security systems in place, it’s feasible that people could commandeer self-driving vehicles, both in the air and on the ground, to do their bidding, which could be malicious or simply just for the thrill and sport of it.”

And while such hacking represents a worst-case scenario, Cummings said, there are many other potentially disruptive problems to be considered. “It’s not uncommon in many parts of the country for people to drive with GPS jammers in their trunks to make sure no one knows where they are, which is very disruptive to other nearby cars relying on GPS.

“Additionally, recent research has shown that a $60 laser device can trick self-driving cars into seeing objects that aren’t there. Moreover, we know that people, including bicyclists, pedestrians and other drivers, could and will attempt to game self-driving cars, in effect trying to elicit or prevent various behaviors in attempts to get ahead of the cars or simply to have fun.”

Lastly, Cummings conveyed that privacy and control of personal data is also going to be a major point of contention because “These cars carry cameras that look both in and outside the car, and will transmit these images and telemetry data in real time, including where you are going and your driving habits. Who has access to this data, whether it is secure, and whether it can be used for other commercial or government purposes has yet to be addressed.”

The hearing exemplified the struggle the auto industry, automakers and the aftermarket face with new technologies. These include safety, cybersecurity, access to information, etc. With regard to who should regulate these new vehicle technologies, it’s becoming increasingly evident that it should be done at the federal vs. the state level. A patchwork regulatory system will work against consumers, the aftermarket and vehicle manufacturers.