Today, the federal government released major new guidelines for self-driving cars. But for anyone waiting for the reaction of big companies like Google and Uber, don’t hold your breath. The chief lobbyist for those companies just convened a press call with reporters in which he said… well, not that much.
Within the 114-page document released by the Department of Transportation was a requirement for auto makers and tech companies working on autonomous technology to share large amounts of data with the government on aspects like safety and software. The reaction from the industry has thus far been fairly muted.
David Strickland, general counsel of the Self-Driving Coalition For Safer Streets, which represents Google, Uber, Ford, Lyft, and Volvo, declined to comment specifically on the data sharing requirements, saying that his group would submit a detailed response sometime during the 60-day public comment period for the guidelines. All he would allow is that "the devil is in the details."
"Data is going to be incredibly important to this process," Strickland said. "There is competitor data, there’s confidential business information, there’s a number of aspects which have to be respected. But on the other hand, safety is a number one priority, and figuring out the right context and space that we can ensure that while protecting the data rights and frankly the property of all the innovators and manufacturers should be properly balanced and that’s going to take some time."
In other words, the self-driving car industry, which includes some of the world’s biggest tech and auto companies, aren’t ready to endorse the White House’s new rulebook quite yet. Strickland, who used to run the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was broadly positive about the guidelines in so far as they amounted to a huge thumbs-up from one of the biggest stakeholders around: the federal government. But he made it clear that the document released today was not seen as the final word from his clients’ point of view.
A number of critics of the self-driving car industry have reacted positively to the new guidelines. Joan Claybrook, also former administrator of NHTSA, said she was "pleased" that regulators have got the conversation started, but warned against being pushed around by the industry.
"The manufacturers always complain about new federal protections, but autonomous cars are a whole new technology with great promise but also with the potential for serious public harm," Claybrook said.
Consumer Watchdog, which has loudly opposed those vehicles it derisively refers to as "robot cars," eagerly claimed victory with the release of the federal guidelines. "This isn’t the checkered flag to industry to irresponsibly develop robot cars that we had feared," John Simpson, the group’s privacy director, said in a statement. "It’s not a secret, cozy process with the manufacturers, but includes a real commitment to transparency and public involvement."
The Obama administration has made it clear that it intends to take a light touch in regulating an industry it sees as a crucial player in the future of transportation. How the feds react to the formal reaction from Strickland and his group may say more about how this process unfolds than anything else.