It Takes a Village to Build an Autonomous Vehicle Industry: Role of Local, Regional, and National Organizations in the Policy Process in the US

For my next series of articles, I will be discussing the difficulties in creating effective policies that will allow for autonomous vehicles to drive on public roads. There is a new president of the U.S. in Joe Biden from when I wrote my book, The Future is Autonomous. However, it is unclear whether President Biden will push for laws governing AVs in Congress or not.

Also, vehicles are some of the most heavily regulated items in the United States, because they can be very dangerous and even fatal. Therefore, it is unlikely that any president could accelerate the legislative process to an extent that would rival the speed to which China can adopt national standards, for example. This slower, more methodical process is not necessarily bad, even though it can lead to some problems in the short term. The slower approach will allow for the technology to mature and develop before regulations are created and passed to allow these vehicles to enter the roads on a large scale safely.

I will begin by discussing the advocacy efforts of local organizations in the US for autonomous vehicles. I have already discussed the importance of organizations for the blind an disabled who support AVs because of the opportunities that they could provide for greater freedom of transportation. This has the potential to open the door for a wide range of educational, employment, and recreational activities that are currently more difficult for them to achieve.

On the other hand, there are groups like Americans For ProspeRory, led by the Koch brothers, who advocate against public transit projects, with the tacit or open support of the uto industry, for proposed projects al over the US. There are also groups of taxi drivers, truck drivers, or delivery truck drivers who would be at risk of losing their jobs because of autonomous vehicles who advocate against their use.

Therefore, local groups are very important for the success or failure of autonomous vehicles because they are able to understand what the needs are of the different locations around the US. This makes them ideally suited to gather information for advocacy efforts for legislators at the state and even the national level in Congress. Other than collecting valuable information, they can also serve as educational service providers to clear up any misconceptions people ight have about autonomous vehicles to increase the public’s trust in this new and very different technology.

“Autonomous cars are the greatest step change in humanity since the Industrial Revolution.”

Marc Hoag, licensed attorney, startup founder, and host of the popular podcast “Autonomous Cars with Marc Hoag

“Autonomous vehicles are nowhere near as smart as they need to be. Safety features — including manual override — must be top priority.”

US Senator Richard Blumenthal

These two quotes indicate the vast differences of opinion in the US about autonomous vehicles. Some people see the potential safety and efficiency benefits of autonomous vehicles. Some skeptics believe it is impossible for a machine to drive a vehicle as safe, or safer, than a person.

In reality, there is a spectrum of opinions. Different organizations and groups of people argue over the merits of both viewpoints. These battles start at the local level but they can have a profound impact on the direction, or lack thereof, of policies related to autonomous vehicles at the state and national level in the US.

The US autonomous vehicle industry has the best technology in the world. Waymo leads a group of innovative companies. However, the automotive sector is one of the most regulated sectors in the US. Vehicles themselves are regulated at the national level. States regulate the drivers, with things like licensing, registration, insurance, and liability. Autonomous vehicle companies need to clear two political hurdles just to reach the road. Cooperation is the key to achieving a successful political outcome related to autonomous vehicles.

These policy making challenges give China the advantage to be the first to roll out large scale commercial use for autonomous vehicles. Just because Chinese companies will be first doesn’t mean the technological quality will be ready for the demanding task of driving autonomously on chaotic Chinese roads.

The slower but more measured US political reality would allow for greater quality. The greater quality of the vehicles would lead to the full range of potential benefits of autonomous vehicles. This would also make it easier for the US to export them and for the US to set the global standards for autonomous vehicles. There remains a steep political hill to climb to reach this point. However, passionate advocates are pushing for autonomous vehicles in the US at the grassroots, state, and national levels.

This article describes the political difficulties the US faces in regulating autonomous vehicles. Cooperation between different groups at the local level can lead to better advocacy efforts at the state and national level. By expanding the number of people interested in promoting autonomous vehicles, this increases the funds and bargaining power of their ideas.

The benefits of cooperation on many levels may seem utopian. However, because autonomous vehicles will benefit many different industries and people, cooperation is both pragmatic and essential for the success of the autonomous vehicle industry. Cooperation between members of state legislatures, members of the autonomous vehicle industry, and insurance company representatives in a “task force” would lead to better policy at the state level. This would allow for each group to ensure that their interests and concerns are being taken into account.

Congressmen and senators at the national level would also need to work together to create effective laws governing things like safety for autonomous vehicles. Government agencies would need to move from fighting with each other and work together to further the industry’s development.

Finally, many different countries would need to advocate for a single set of standards for autonomous vehicles. This would allow them the greatest potential positive impact and avoid the “One Globe Two Systems” scenario. This could be the result of further de-escalation of security and trade tensions between China and the US.

It Takes a Village to Build an Autonomous Vehicle Industry: Impact at the Local Level

The Coalition for Future Mobility (CFM) is a highly diverse coalition of nearly fifty different groups advocating for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the US. These groups represent senior citizens, people with disabilities, safety advocates, environmental groups, and groups from the automotive and technology industries. The bills introduced in the US House and Senate related to autonomous vehicles failed to become laws, but the CFM advocated for both bills in Congress. They continue to grow as an organization with even the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division joining on April 1, 2019.

With more groups joining the CFM with a wide range of constituency groups, their lobbying and advocacy efforts to Congress on behalf of autonomous vehicles will continue to improve. This makes future bills more likely to pass. Even with the increased partisanship in the US Congress, autonomous vehicles are not a strong partisan issue and should not arouse significant opposition. Members of Congress must work together to create bills which address all, or most, of the needs of both the autonomous vehicle industry as well as all other groups represented by such organizations as the CFM.

The best way to get Congress to support and pass a law remains getting the public to trust and accept autonomous vehicles. This public push would also lead state legislatures to create pilot programs for testing them for things like university or airport shuttles or limited range autonomous vehicle “robotaxi” fleets.

I discussed in my article highlighting the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles that organizations for the blind are working with autonomous vehicle companies to make their vehicles accessible to blind people. They also advocate for legislation for autonomous vehicles at both the state and national level. Passionate grassroots organizations also advocate for autonomous vehicles. They arrange educational and networking events which form a community of like-minded people.

I spoke with Kevin Schlosser, the co-founder and president of one of these groups, the DC Autonomous Vehicle Association (DC-AVA). He discussed why he formed DC-AVA and the benefits these types of organizations have on educational and advocacy efforts for autonomous vehicles.

The story he recalled about why he is passionate about autonomous vehicles is tragic and, unfortunately, very common. He revealed, “In September 2017, I lost my girlfriend, Michelle Crowe, in a crash.” Her car was hit by a truck driver. Schlosser then described how this was not the first time he had to deal with a situation like this. He recalled, “When I was 12, my mother was also involved in a fatal car crash. Fortunately, my mother survived. However, her friend did not.” He told me how his mother suffered greatly from PTSD as a result of the accident. He could see her struggle and how it changed her personality.

He described, “After seeing my mother in the hospital bed when I was twelve and my girlfriend in a morgue for the exact same reason, there’s no option for me. I have to do something.” His advocacy efforts bring together many different people. Maybe not all of them have a passion derived from tremendous personal grief like him. However, they all believe autonomous vehicles can make their lives better.

Efforts by large, umbrella organizations like the CFM provide a template for more effective advocacy efforts at the city, state, and national level. They demonstrate that there is a large constituency of groups and individuals who would benefit from the deployment of autonomous vehicles on public roads and see them as having the potential to be safer than human-driven vehicles. Regional organizations also provide vital insight about how groups within regions or cities that otherwise might be overlooked have their agenda heard by policymakers. These regional groups can also work together to expand their outreach efforts.

DC-AVA and Self-Driving Cars 101 from San Francisco partnered for a virtual event, “How Policy Drives the Future of Autonomous Vehicles,” on May 12, 2020. These groups brought together the technical and engineering experts from San Francisco and political advocacy workers in the Washington, DC area. They talked about the policy dynamics people in San Francisco would like to see and the political reality of what the situation actually looks like from the panelists from Washington, DC.

The main lesson learned from local, regional, and national groups in their advocacy efforts related to autonomous vehicles is cooperation benefits everyone. In advocacy efforts at both the state and national level, there will be groups and organizations pushing to create comprehensive laws governing autonomous vehicles. Combined efforts by groups of people highlight the substantial number of individuals that are interested in having autonomous vehicles on the road. It also demonstrates the many different organizations that would benefit from them.

In the coming weeks I will have articles describing the political process or autonomous vehicle legislation at the state, national, and international level for things like global standards for safety. As I discuseed before in my articles about China;s new push to become a technological power, the US has grown accustomed to setting the global standards for new technology. However, that might not necessarily be the case anymore. The next big fight in the economic and technology competition between the US and China will likely be who sets the standards for this new technology, including for autonomous vehicles.

If you are interested in the political process of regulating new technology in the US, stay tuned for future articles. If you would like to learn more about the technology, new business models, and policy ideas for governing autonomous vehicles in both the US and China, then but my book The Future is Autonomous in the link below!

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