I’m willing to bet that self-driving cars are not high on president-elect Donald Trump’s list of policy priorities in his first 100 days in office. He’ll likely be so overwhelmed with the immediate demands of his office and squaring his campaign promises with his party’s often competing agenda that federal regulation of autonomous vehicles will be on the backburner for a while.
But with autonomy accelerating so quickly—and federal policy working to keep pace—even a slight pause is bound to make companies developing self-driving technology feel like the federal government is hitting the brakes. For some time now, everyone from automakers to tech companies to ride-sharing services have been seeking comprehensive policy guidance from the feds to avoid a patchwork of state laws. And President Obama and the DOT have fast-tracked self-driving car policy and recently released voluntary guidelines for the technology.
“I just hope and pray that it doesn’t come to a screeching halt at the end of the administration,” said Paul Brubaker, chairman of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation (ATI), said in an interview with the Washington Post prior to the election. “The incoming administration has this unprecedented opportunity when it comes to accelerating the paths to self-driving,” he added. “They can really effect some change if they make this sort of a marquee issue.”
But beyond accelerating federal guidelines, Brubaker’s organization suggested in a recent white paper giving the president more authority and influence over self-driving vehicle regulations so that policy can stay ahead of the technology.
ATI proposed that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy spearhead autonomous vehicle guidelines since “the DOT is not equipped to lead something this big, this complex, something this cross-cutting,” Brubaker said. “If you designate an executive agency like DOT to take the lead on this, it’s really difficult to coordinate cross-agency.”
Brubaker believes that the White House is better suited as the linchpin for driverless car policy by working with, for example, the FCC on communication issues, the FTC on data privacy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on cyber security. “You’ve got to use the bully pulpit of executive leadership,” he added. “This is only going to come out of the executive office of the president.”
During his campaign Trump didn’t give specifics about a potential policy approach to self-driving cars. But in a meeting with business leaders in Ohio in September, Trump responded to a comment on autonomous vehicles by jokingly wondering whether they’ll be “safer or catastrophic,” according to the Dayton Daily News.
Hillary Clinton said during her campaign that the U.S. should “lead the world” on cutting-edge technology such as autonomous vehicles. She added that her administration would promote wireless infrastructure for vehicle-to-vehicle communication to augment self-driving cars.
But promoting self-driving technology could collide with one of Trump’s top campaign promises: to bring back millions of middle-class jobs. As Hillary Clinton pointed out in an interview this summer, “a lot of trucks and cabbies and Uber drivers and a lot of other people may well lose jobs” as autonomous technology takes the wheel.
And then there’s the possibility that a President Trump won’t do anything at all and will take a light-touch approach to autonomous car technology, in fitting with Republican’s typical laissez faire attitude towards regulation. But that would put the U.S. in the slow lane behind countries like China and Germany that are competing to take the lead in autonomous technology.
That’s why it’s important that Trump not only steers autonomous vehicle regulation, but also keeps his foot on the gas.