Autonomous Cars Will Soon Be On U.S. Roads. Now It’s Up to Government To Write Smart Regulations.

Today in the Motor City, I walked the halls of the Cobo Center, home of the famed American International Auto Show, and helped KPMG kick off its 14th Annual Automotive Executive Forum as a panelist on the topic of autonomous vehicle (AV) regulation. The auto show is a real-time public display of American manufacturing excellence and clearly demonstrates our future aspirations by asking the question—where do we go from here? It’s a little Henry Ford, a little Walt Disney and even some Jetsons with four wheels.

In the not-so-distant future will be the deployment of the Level 4 autonomous vehicle—a highly autonomous vehicle that can operate without a driver in a limited area—and automakers, along with heavy-duty truck manufacturers, are in a high-stakes race with each other to achieve this heightened state of autonomy first. In an autonomous future, everything from steering wheels to street signs will have changing roles in automotive vehicles.

Interestingly, Detroit is where the now omnipresent and internationally recognized stop sign first appeared back in 1915. With the stop sign came an ingrained set of traffic safety practices and procedures that have evolved over the years and are second nature to drivers. Now that we are exploring new technologies that will change the role of both cars and humans, a new harmonized set of rules and procedures should be embraced by industry and government to mirror the 21st century rules of the road to our 21st century transportation. Moreover, basic infrastructure signals that cars can sense and read in real-time to get better “eyes on the road,” like lane markings and obstacle warnings, may be even more integral to the deployment and success of more advanced vehicles.

One fear is that government can play the role of spoiler through inaction or taking too heavy-handed of an approach to regulation. Conversely, government can opt to be the critical catalyst that allows innovation to flourish and grow by setting the right conditions for the safe deployment and adoption of AV technology. We explored those themes on my panel and discussed how various levels of government are getting in the game and beginning to write the rules. If not approached carefully, conflicting regulations could seriously stifle the potential of new automotive technologies.

It will be critical that the government provides clarity, guidance, and a smart (light-touch) approach to drive the industry forward. Last year, Congress was unable to agree on bipartisan legislation to help guide the Department of Transportation to judiciously approach the safe deployment of AV technologies. Manufacturers will continue urging the new Congress to pick up where the last one left off and enact commonsense legislation that will modernize the regulatory process and prevent a patchwork of duplicative state and local requirements.

For more information, the host of today’s forum, Gary Silberg, The Americas Head of Automotive, KPMG (US), wrote a paper on some of the subjects covered entitled “Autonomy delivers,” which you can read here.

Robyn Boerstling

Robyn Boerstling is the Vice President of Infrastructure, Innovation and Human Resources Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

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