General Motors has a long and illustrious history of receiving government favors, with 2021 likely to continue the trend. Having recently seen its request to have federal EV tax credits reset approved by the Senate Finance Committee, GM-owned Cruise is now seeking to double down by asking regulators to scale back restrictions on autonomous vehicle testing. With practically every automaker simultaneously requesting government hookups on a weekly basis, it’s hardly surprising to see this.
What is unique is the rationales given for government help and it’s often the only way to measure their merit. While most claims tend to boil down to “we need more money,” Cruise wants regulators to get out of the way so the United States can become more competitive against China’s AV programs and is hardly the first company to make such a suggestion.
Cruise CEO Dan Ammann reportedly issued a letter to Joe Biden on May 17th asking that the president back legislation that would increase the number of autonomous test vehicles a company can legally field without their needing to adhere to the existing federal safety standards. According to Reuters, Ammann stated that “without [presidential] support and congressional action to revise these self imposed barriers, the U.S. AV manufacturing industry will lag, AI development will stall, and our foreign competitors will race ahead.”
Senators John Thune and Gary Peters have been working for several years on efforts to ease restrictions on AVs. An amendment to a bill designed to address U.S. competitiveness against China proposed by Thune to raise the cap stalled last week amid opposition from labor unions and plaintiffs attorneys, but Thune and Peters are expected to continue to pursue the issue.
Thune and Peters in April circulated language for potential legislation to grant the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the power to lift the cap and initially exempt 15,000 self-driving vehicles per manufacturer, rising to 80,000 within three years. The NHTSA would need to certify self-driving vehicles exempted are at least as safe as human-driven ones.
“China’s top down, centrally directed approach imposes no similar restraints on their home grown AV industry,” Ammann wrote. “We do not seek, require or desire government funding; we seek your help in leveling the playing field,” he said, referencing a study positing that AVs are “estimated to create and sustain 108,000 jobs over the next five years.”
Union concerns are at odds with Ammann’s own claims that advancing AVs will result in net job creation. But the point may be moot as increasingly more businesses are getting in on the action.
One issue that is more clear, however, is the incorrect assumption that China doesn’t impose strict restrictions on autonomous mules. Last time we checked, the CCP was eyeballing some fairly strict rules regarding testing protocols. Meanwhile, Chinese AVs currently have to be authorized by provincial governments before they’re legally allowed to run on public roads and vehicles have to first be tested in a closed setting with a certified safety driver to prove a level of competency. They are then given road transport permits and licenses prior to being deployed and informed of when/where they can be operated by regional authorities.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued updated national draft regulations in January that would allow more vehicles to be tested on public roads, including some without a driver. Though this also requires new safety assessments and approval from the relevant government entities, all of which require access to vehicle data. The Ministry of Public Security has been similarly pitching new regulations this year, most of which pertain to liability issues, cybersecurity, and centralized monitoring. As for those aforementioned liability rules, autonomous vehicles that crash with a human driver behind the wheel will see the human taking the blame. But cars operating without a safety driver automatically push labilities onto whoever owns it — which will likely be the manufacturer at this stage in the game.
So not having an official cap on the number of AVs that can be fielded doesn’t mean it’s running test cars without restrictions. If anything, China’s model seems to be evolving into something that’s more restrictive than what the United States currently has in place.
The right approach, however, is a matter of opinion. Deregulation often advances industries coming up with creative solutions and accelerates development. But allowing corporations to do whatever they want can result in unsavory behavior and public endangerment. Worse yet, legislators have shown themselves to have a pitiful grasp of practically every nuanced regulatory issue — though it seems especially bad whenever technology comes into play.