A driverless car is displayed during a Google event in San Francisco in 2016. | Eric Risberg/AP Photo
Updated: 01/08/2020 04:18 PM EST
The Trump administration rolled out new non-binding guidelines Wednesday for regulating driverless cars and trucks — its second move this week to advance a light-touch approach to tech regulation that contrasts with the strategy key European leaders are advocating.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used the big CES technology conference in Las Vegas to announce the driverless-vehicle guidelines, which her department developed in conjunction with the White House. They come just two days after the White House issued a broader set of draft principles for federal agencies’ treatment of artificial intelligence, which President Donald Trump’s advisers say should avoid “preemptive, burdensome or duplicative rules.”
The twin moves came during a week when three Cabinet secretaries and Trump’s daughter Ivanka were scheduled to make appearances at the CES conference. And they arrived just two months before Europe is set to initiate legislation on artificial intelligence, a key pledge by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that would make the continent the first region in the world to pass hard laws for AI.
“Europe and our allies should avoid heavy handed innovation-killing models, and instead consider a similar regulatory approach,” the White House said Monday night in a fact sheet on its AI approach.
But high-ranking EU officials are pursuing a much different vision — the belief that by coming up with rules early, Europe will set a global standard for AI regulation.
The outcome of the competing strategies is of high interest to a number of industries, especially as China aims to achieve global dominance on emerging technologies including self-driving cars, facial recognition and drones.
The principles Chao announced Wednesday are the Transportation Department’s fourth set of guidance on driverless car development, aiming to craft a unified policy approach for the 38 federal agencies, commissions and White House offices that have some hand in dealing with the technology. The voluntary approach is expected to draw applause from tech companies and carmakers.
But the industry still wants more — a federal law that would set nationwide standards for allowing the technology to hit the streets, instead of the existing set of differing state-by-state regulations. And so far, Congress has stalemated over issues such as manufacturers’ legal liability for crashes and the roles of state and local governments in testing and deploying the technology, leaving DOT’s guidance as the only definitive word from Washington, for now.
“The takeaway from [the new guidance document] is that the federal government is all in for safer, better and more inclusive transportation, aided by automated driving systems,” Chao said at the event, which was webcast live.
Joining her was White House Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios, who published an op-ed Tuesday championing the White House’s broader AI principles. That framework will affect rules such as DOT’s future regulations on self-guided drones and cars.
“The White House is directing federal agencies to avoid preemptive, burdensome or duplicative rules that would needlessly hamper AI innovation and growth,” Kratsios wrote, describing the guidelines as critical to keeping China’s authoritarian use of artificial technology from gaining global sway. He added, “The best way to counter this dystopian approach is to make sure America and our allies remain the top global hubs of AI innovation.”
Chao told POLITICO in an interview before her speech that the Trump administration’s strategy strikes the right balance between encouraging innovation and addressing consumers’ concerns.
“America is known throughout the world for our innovation, for our creative spirit and it is part of our inter-competitiveness, and so we want to foster innovation,” she said. “But there are also legitimate public concerns expressed about safety, security and privacy.”
To develop the new guidelines on self-driving cars — officially, version 4.0 — the DOT detailed a policy staffer to the White House, working “hand in hand” with the Office of Science and Technology Policy on crafting the version introduced Wednesday, said a DOT official who requested anonymity to speak about the document before its release. It’s the first time the White House has taken a direct role in designing DOT’s autonomous vehicle guidance.
This version of the guidance builds upon the safety-focused 2.0 version and 3.0, which unified the department’s position into what the DOT official called a “one DOT approach.” The latter addressed all modes of transportation, including trucking and transit, and added “more guidance and more clarity on who does what and how things [should] be done.”
With 4.0, that “one DOT” approach becomes a “one federal government” approach.
“Before this, there wasn’t any good sense of who all was doing what in this space,” said the DOT official. “So we coordinated all these assets — billions and billions of dollars in research going on in real time now — aligning all these efforts together under 10 principles.”
For now, the department’s oversight doesn’t include any binding requirements for companies making autonomous vehicles. The guidelines encourage driverless-car manufacturers to submit safety self-assessments, but they are purely voluntary. Furthermore, the DOT has been reluctant to intervene in response to early signs of trouble, such as multiple fatalities related to misuse of Tesla’s Autopilot feature.
European officials haven’t made it clear whether their forthcoming AI proposals will include specific regulations for self-driving cars. But they do aim to deliver on von der Leyen’s promise to initiate legislation on artificial intelligence within her first 100 days in office, a pledge she made last summer shortly after she was nominated for her new post.
The pledge came after von der Leyen’s longtime confidante, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had said the next Commission should regulate AI with rules as sweeping as the General Data Protection Regulation, the tough set of European privacy requirements that governments from Japan to Brazil have imitated.
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Since then, officials in the EU’s digital policy department have been busy analyzing legislation to understand how much of emerging AI technology is already covered by existing rules like the GDPR and where new laws are needed.
Europe’s new political leadership remains divided over what the rules should look like, however — and whether they should come in the form of a light-touch framework or as hard specific laws applying across sectors. Civil liberties activists say the latter approach is necessary to mitigate the destructive potential of high-risk AI applications, but the tech industry and other powerful sectors have been lobbying against it for months.
Behind closed doors, officials in Brussels are set to make their decision in coming weeks — and in the AI guidelines it issued Monday, the White House is bluntly telling them to go with the former option.
Some U.S. politicians also want binding rules at home. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for driverless car legislation, cautioned that the DOT “should establish meaningful rules, not just guidelines, to ensure innovative transportation technologies are safely deployed.“
Some building blocks of a solid federal framework for driverless vehicles lie exclusively with Congress, which has so far failed to come to consensus on a bill. For instance, Congress would have to raise the cap on the number of vehicles that can be manufactured without standard features like steering wheels and foot pedals.
“On any matters of great national importance Congress should weigh in,” the DOT official said. “This fits the standard.”
Cristiano Lima in Las Vegas contributed to this report.