Politics

New pitch for federal robocar legislation: Social distance through self-driving

Autonomous vehicle companies are the latest to seek a change of fortune by branding their tech with the COVID-19 stamp of public good.

Cruise

AV companies are pushing federal legislation that could accelerate the adoption of self-driving technology.

Photo: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Energized by the sales pitch that autonomous vehicles are not only driverless but in some ways contactless, a growing number of Republicans and industry players are seeking to use the coronavirus crisis to push Congress to finally pass national rules for the technology. The backers hope a federal framework could boost investment and speed the introduction of self-driving cars, which have been stuck in a mire of regulatory, technological and safety issues.

For four long years, lawmakers have fought bitterly over legislation, hitting roadblock after roadblock amid partisan bickering: Republicans, backed by the tech and auto industries, want to cut red tape and create one overriding federal standard. Democrats, backed by safety advocates and lawyers, want to go as far as possible to ensure that autonomous vehicles are safe — and that their makers can be sued if they're not.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak triggered mass quarantines, lobbyists had begun to turn away from Congress. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, created by Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo Cars and Waymo, reported no federal lobbying activity in the first three months of 2020, after spending $50,000 over the same quarter last year. Now, COVID-19 has kickstarted the conversation. AV companies are sensing opportunity in D.C. while demonstrating in real time the potential for contact-free delivery, facilitating thousands of essential deliveries in small pockets across the country.

The coronavirus crisis "spotlights a way that AVs can be a public good, in a way that nobody could have imagined even a few months ago," said Eric Danko, the director of federal affairs for Cruise, GM's AV division.

Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, agreed, telling Protocol in a statement, "The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated real-world applications of AV technology. Whether it be to deliver meals and packages to seniors or to support our health care workers on the front lines, AVs are being put to work." He said Congress "must create a federal framework for the safe development and deployment of AVs."

The effort is somewhat opportunistic, making self-driving companies the latest to seek a change of fortune by branding their tech with the COVID-19 stamp of public good. The issues challenging the AV movement, which could fundamentally change the way people travel, go far beyond the promotion of social distancing. Consumer and safety advocates remain broadly skeptical, and fully autonomous vehicles are years away from negotiating freeways and busy downtowns. Existing AVs are still mostly in the early phases of testing and piloting.

But an enormous amount of money is at stake: Cruise recently predicted that the global autonomous vehicle industry is an $8 trillion market opportunity.

A spokesperson for the Democratic side of the Committee on Energy and Commerce declined to comment. But consumer advocates have already started to criticize AV backers for pushing controversial legislation amid the pandemic. Cathy Chase, the president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which includes consumer and law enforcement groups and insurance companies, criticized the industry for engaging in an "opportunistic power play" and "using a time of national crisis to advance their economic agenda."

But aides and lobbyists who have sunk years into the fight don't want to see the initiative fail yet again. In lieu of federal standards enacted by Congress, the industry worries it will have to wait years for the U.S. Department of Transportation to update its rules while navigating an increasingly complex web of state and local regulations emerging across the country. Most states have passed their own AV executive orders and laws, a fraught situation that allows fleets to test in certain states but not others. Of course, many local leaders feel they need such power to make sure self-driving technology is launched fairly and safely.

In February, Congress had, once again, seemed to be turning a corner in the battle over legislation. Aides, after a year of "four-corner negotiations" across the House and Senate, were disseminating text of what was said to be a bipartisan bill that incorporated safety measures and clarified the role of the federal government in overseeing AVs. Key lawmakers sounded optimistic about getting the legislation passed and signed into law this year. Then coronavirus hit, brushing aside talk about AVs as lawmakers churned out the unprecedented $2 trillion stimulus package and followup bills.

Nuro's R2 vehicle Nuro's second-generation R2 vehicle will deliver goods in a partnership with Kroger in Houston. Photo: Courtesy of Nuro

In recent days, however, companies and tech trade associations have peppered the Committee on Energy and Commerce with letters urging lawmakers not to forget about AVs as Congress barrels through this session. "As Congress considers longer-term solutions in response to this crisis, there is an opportunity to broaden the reach of contactless and driverless delivery," wrote Gary Shapiro, the president of the tech trade group Consumer Technology Association, in a May 5 letter to the committee. CTA has almost 2,000 members, including key players in the self-driving space: Uber, Lyft, Cruise, Nuro, Argo AI and more.

Proposed AV provisions, per drafts circulated to stakeholders, would ease a multitude of regulatory hurdles, potentially enabling companies to test and deploy tens of thousands more vehicles every year and overriding state laws. Lawmakers have not officially introduced the legislation, and the provisions they have circulated leave the most controversial issues unresolved. Though one industry lobbyist said aides are "on the verge of potentially putting a draft bill together," divisions are stark between Democrats and Republicans over interaction with state laws, rules on lawsuits and particulars of safety measures.

Though a similar AV measure passed the House in 2018, it stalled in the Senate, a sore subject for many involved. A separate bill also failed in the Senate. "Third time's the charm," said John Kwant, an AV lobbyist with Ford.

House GOP aides and industry lobbyists told Protocol the AV bill could be pushed through in one of the larger legislative packages moving this year, or as a standalone bill. Rolling the AV legislation into a larger package could make it likelier to pass — as long as the Republicans get support from Democrats. Partisan fighting over the bill has not let up, however.

"A lot of our guys are wondering, 'Why are we not moving something that everybody agreed was a good idea, saves lives and advances U.S. leadership?'" a GOP aide said.

It's been an exhausting fight. Republicans say they want one federal framework to enable more testing and deployment of AVs, arguing that the current setup hampers "innovation" and could prevent the industry from blooming. Democrats sound a far more cautious note, saying they want to ensure tough safety and liability standards before greenlighting any overriding federal rules.

In the meantime, AV makers are seeking to promote their altruistic projects. Cruise has facilitated more than 4,000 food and meal deliveries from two food banks in San Francisco since mid-April, with each vehicle staffed by two safety drivers, Danko said. "We're focused on developing the technology and playing a small part in the current crisis in terms of trying to fill an immediate need," he said.


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


Nuro has launched two initiatives to provide contactless delivery to health care facilities in Sacramento and San Mateo, after receiving a federal exemption to produce driverless vehicles. Matthew Lipka, the federal lead for Nuro's AV policy team, said his company will deploy and test vehicles with or without legislation, but added that it would be useful if the Department of Transportation received "congressional guidance."

"We're cautiously hopeful that the legislation will move forward," Lipka said. He noted that "the technology is not going to scale for this pandemic," but that the crisis "has highlighted the importance of contactless delivery."

Protocol | Fintech

How European fintech startup N26 is preparing for U.S. regulations

"There's a lot more scrutiny being placed on fintech. We are definitely mindful of it."

Photo: N26

N26's monster $900 million funding round announced Monday underlined the German startup's momentum in the digital banking market.

Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, said the funding will be used for expansion and also to improve "our core offering to make this the most reliable bank that our customers can trust," she told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Apple’s new MacBooks are the future — and the past

After years of reinventing the wheel, Apple's back to just building really good ones.

Apple brought back the ports.

Photo: Apple

The 2015 Pro was, by most accounts, one of the best laptops Apple ever made. It was fast and functional, and it had a great screen, a MagSafe charger, plenty of ports, a great keyboard and solid battery life. If you walked around practically any office in Silicon Valley, you'd see Pros everywhere.

Many of those users have been holding on to their increasingly old and dusty 2015 Pros, too, because right about when that computer came out was when Apple seemed to lose its way in the laptop market. It released the 12-inch MacBook, an incredibly thin and light computer that made a bunch of changes — a new keyboard and trackpad design chief among them — that eventually made their way around the rest of the MacBook lineup. Then came the Touch Bar, Apple's attempt to build an entirely new user interface into a laptop.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Protocol spoke to founders and tech execs who've embraced async and have tips on how to get started.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Imagine a company where there are no meetings — just time for deep, focused work punctuated by short conversations on Slack and project updates on Trello.

Now imagine a company where the no-meeting ethos is so ingrained that it's possible to work there for 10 years without ever speaking face-to-face with a single coworker, and for your boss to not even recognize the sound of your voice.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Protocol | Workplace

#AppleToo activist says Apple fired her for deleting apps from her devices

Janneke Parrish says she was dismissed after deleting Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive from her work devices during an investigation inside the company.

The Apple Too movement is trying to organize Apple workers into a collective movement.
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

Unlike most other companies, Apple asks that its employees use their work phones like personal ones — and for five years, Apple program manager Janneke Parrish did as she was told. But last week, when Apple asked Parrish for her devices in an internal investigation, she was afraid Apple would see her personal and private information. She disobeyed orders and deleted apps like Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive. Then Apple fired her.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories