Emerging digital technologies are accelerating the advent of connected and autonomous vehicles (AVs). These technologies will reshape the future of mobility, reducing accidents and fatalities, expanding personal mobility, generating environmental and ecological benefits, and producing an estimated $1 trillion-a-year economic benefit in the United States alone. But to achieve that vision, policymakers will need to create a regulatory environment that encourages experimentation while ensuring high standards of road safety, as Germany has recently set out to achieve by developing a policy framework for autonomous vehicle research and experimentation.
ITIF and the Washington Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany co-hosted an event to discuss key policy and commercial issues and insights into how enterprises and policymakers from the United States and Germany are enabling the future of mobility. The overarching theme of the event was clear: AVs have the potential to revolutionize transportation, but only if the policy can keep up with the technology.
Stephen Ezell, ITIF’s vice president for global innovation policy and the panel’s moderator, opened the event by placing the rise of AVs in historical context. Since Carl Benz invented the automobile in the 1890s, Ezell noted, cars have evolved from mechanical to electromechanical systems with the development of technologies like OnStar, and the current wave of driver-assistance technologies like collision avoidance is now paving the way for more advanced AVs. Ezell argued AVs constitute another step along what economists call an “S-curve,” a transition from an older technology system to a new one, and this transition could make transportation dramatically safer and more efficient if policymakers create the right regulations.
Tobias Miethaner, the director general for digital society at the German federal ministry of transport and digital infrastructure, followed Ezell with a discussion of how Germany is approaching AVs and what lessons can be learned from Germany’s experience. He explained that Germany’s recently introduced Strategy for Automated and Connected Driving focuses on three “bundles” of questions. The first encompasses technological questions, like research and development (R&D) and testing. Miethaner explained that to help German industry remain at the forefront of AV development, Germany has opened part of the A9 autobahn for testing. The second group of issues the German strategy addresses includes legal questions—Germany, unlike the United States, is governed by EU law as well as national law, but the international regulatory environment will impact any automaker trying to develop or sell AVs. The third section of Germany’s strategy covers questions of public acceptance. Germany, Miethaner observed, has convened an ethics commission to discuss the moral issues raised by AVs. He concluded, “as soon as we have highly- and fully-automated vehicles, they should be able to drive on German streets.”
Highlighting the cooperation between Germany’s public and private sectors in AVs, Miethaner was followed by Michael Bültmann, the managing director of HERE Deutschland, a geolocation intelligence company at the forefront of autonomous navigation. Bültmann describes HERE’s mission as “digitizing the world” into an “open location platform.” Although autonomous transportation is not the only use for the platform HERE is creating, Bültmann said that making maps more precise is crucial for AVs because for GPS, “you had a tolerance of some meters, which is good enough for simple navigation, [but] when it comes to maneuvering a car into a parking slot, maybe we should not think about meters but… centimeters.” The technology, Bültmann added, is outstripping regulations because although AVs need a policy framework developed in a “data culture,” current rules relating to issues like competition and accessibility were developed for an analog world. One such area in particular, he said, is privacy regulations, where requiring consent for sharing information “every second” may not only be impractical but could limit the life-saving potential of connected, autonomous vehicles.
Shifting to the U.S., Anne Marie Lewis, the director of safety and technology policy at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, spoke on the “continuous trend to automated driving features,” driven by a host of technological and economic forces. She highlighted four such factors: Advances in autonomous and connectivity technologies being tested in a “diverse range of environmental and road conditions,” the competition between new entrants like Google and established automakers like Ford, the explosion of ride-sharing and advanced mobility services like Lyft, and the demand for safer vehicles that can prevent a potentially very large share of the 94 percent of U.S. traffic accidents caused by human error. Referencing the five-step scale used to categorize degrees of autonomy, Lewis said Level 5 (fully autonomous) vehicles will likely emerge around 2025 or after, and it will be approximately four decades until Level 5 AVs are ubiquitous. To help realize the potential benefits of AV advancement, Lewis advocated that NHTSA maintain control of design safety regulations, while state governments update rules like “one-hand-on-the-wheel” laws for an era of autonomous driving.
Paul Lewis, vice president for policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, rounded out the panel with a comparison between the present and the emergence of vehicles a century ago. In both cases, the collision of increases in GDP and miles traveled with limited road space and the introduction of new transportation methods lead to new safety and environmental concerns. Echoing previous speakers, Lewis said AVs present policy headaches that need to be solved as quickly as the technological hurdles are being overcome. Instead of ripping up the existing paradigm of automotive public policy, Lewis agreed with Anne Marie in arguing for “tweaks” to existing rules. “The federal government,” he said, “has long been involved in regulating safety… it’s incumbent on the federal government to take a leadership role in setting a framework” for a safety-certification system.
Humans cause the vast majority of traffic accidents and congestion. But with the right policy framework to encourage transportation innovation while ensuring consumer safety, AVs can provide incalculable benefits to the quality of life of their users. Cooperation between the public and private sectors, as well as between different countries, will be crucial to building the next generation of autonomous transportation systems.