Driverless Cars

The Next Great ‘Space Race’ Is Here: Driverless Cars

China, the US, and the UK are aggressively competing to be first to the self-driving car market

Driverless Cars
Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jun 28, 2016 at 12:19 PM ET

The twentieth century saw the Space Race, a battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to conquer the solar system. This century’s technological war is a little more terrestrial—it’s taking place along Earth’s roads and highways.

It’s a competition to see who can be first to take the driverless car and turn it from the futuristic stuff of science fiction into the planet’s dominant mode of transportation. And while the United States is leading the pack, China and the UK aren’t far behind.

Though the driverless car has been slowly becoming a reality for decades, as manufacturers have added features that give vehicles autonomy (like cruise control or park-assist), the first fully driverless car was invented in the U.S. It came out of the Carnegie Mellon robotics Navigation Laboratory in 1984, and American companies have been leading the way ever since. This is where Google and Tesla, who’ve invested millions in autonomous vehicles (AVs), are based. So the U.S. has a clear head start.

Google already has prototypes up-and-running on the streets of California. Tesla famously pushed an “autopilot” feature to its Model S cars earlier this year, and the tech community is buzzing with speculation and rumors that their next car, the Model 3, expected to be available sometime at the end of 2017, could be the first commercially available fully AV.

In the last year, private U.S. companies and academia have invested heavily in AV technology. Ride-sharing powerhouse Uber started testing its own automated Ford Fusions on the streets of Pittsburgh this May. Their closest rival, Lyft, announced earlier this year that they are partnering with General Motors to create a national network of self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, Texas A&M just announced that they’ve purchased an old military base and will be repurposing it into a massive $150 million, 2,000-acre hub for driverless car innovation.

But while private industry and academia are barreling full-steam ahead, the U.S. government is taking a more cautious approach. There are no federal laws to incentive cities and states to invest in infrastructure to support driverless cars. In fact, it’s not completely clear that driverless cars are even legal in every state. Only eight states have enacted legislation (one by executive order) that expressly permits the use of autonomous vehicles. But the rest of the states’ laws, for the most part, don’t expressly say that a person must have their hands on the wheel to be legally driving a car, rather they must be “operating” it, which leaves a legal grey area.

“If the U.S. doesn’t get thoughtful about robotics policy, we will wind up losing out to these other nations,” Ryan Calo, an expert in cyber law and robotics at the University of Washington School of Law, tells Vocativ. 

Specifically, in a white paper on the government’s difficulty with regulating new technologies, Calo said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lacks the understanding on the complicated technology behind the vehicles already on our roads. He cites an example of a past electronic problem with Toyota vehicles, in which NHTSA, unable to evaluate the issue on their own, had to ask NASA for assistance in determining the car’s malfunction.

Just this month, NHTSA head Mark Rosekind released a statement emphasizing the role of individual states, rather than the federal government, in making policy decisions about AV regulation. “What the states actually implement is their call,” he said. According to a National Law Review article on the statement, this move by the NHTSA could mean that the U.S. isn’t ready to compete with other countries, like China, on pushing forward legislation that will make AVs a reality. “This is undoubtedly a disappointment to the many companies in the industry that have pushed for federal regulations to promote uniformity and avoid the substantial efforts necessary to sift through the potentially conflicting state rules,” the National Law Review story said.

A disappointment for sure, or if you’re Google, a slap in face. The company’s director of self-driving cars, Chris Urmson, went before the Senate in March and essentially begged them take action. Leaving the law in a “patchwork” of different rules depending on the state, he said, would “significantly hinder safety innovation, interstate commerce, national competitiveness, and the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles.”

According to Dan Malone, an attorney with extensive experience with automotive compliance laws at the Michigan law firm Butzel Long, “[Driverless car regulation] doesn’t come with instructions. People are trying to marshall developments that are occurring at breakneck speed. You don’t want to rush too quickly and … you don’t want to delay, delay, delay.” he says. “Where you strike the balance between those two extremes will largely define what lies ahead.”

So, while Silicon Valley’s early investment in AVs gives the U.S. a leg up on the competition, our resistance to regulation could be our undoing.

There’s no country that wants to win the driverless car race more than China. While some of their largest companies (like internet giant Baidu) are developing their own driverless vehicles, the country is mostly focused on partnerships with international companies like BMW and Volvo (which is actually a Chinese-owned company based in Sweden).

Overall, the Chinese auto-making industry is not robust; however, China is the world’s largest automotive market—and that gives them a lot of bargaining power with car companies. If China creates the infrastructure for AVs—and Chinese car consumers buy them—then car manufacturers hoping to remain relevant will have little choice but to invest in supplying them.

So that leaves a lot of room for international companies to get deeply involved with China. Last month Apple invested $1 billion in the country’s Uber-like ride-sharing company Didi. 

And when it comes to regulating its driverless cars, China leads the pack.

The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is already at work on a roadmap that will have autonomous vehicles on the highway within three to five years and in urban centers by 2025, a lofty goal. The ministry is also responsible for regulating China’s internet, electronic, and software industries.

Under single-party rule, China has been able to enact large-scale social changes that would be far more difficult in countries with American-style bureaucracy. After all, a few years ago the nation announced plans to move 250 million people off farms and into newly constructed cities, in what would be the biggest relocation of humans in history, in just a dozen years—and they’re making progress. That makes having a nation of driverless vehicles in ten years not seem so crazy. 

So now they have turned their power to change in the direction of autonomous vehicles. The roadmap they have set out includes convening a panel that will set standards and create an industry that is unified nationwide According to a Reuters story on the roadmap: “The draft will set out technical standards, including a common language for cars to communicate with each other and infrastructure, and regulatory guidelines—a unified framework that contrasts with a patchwork of state laws and standards in the United States.”

Many individual Chinese cities are also investing in infrastructure that would support AVs. Last month, the southeastern city of WuHu announced it wants to be the world’s first city to embrace the driverless car. The city is at the start of a three-year pilot program in which autonomous vehicles—including cars, buses, and vans—are tootling around the city in designated areas. If the three-year test run is a success, local residents will be allowed to drive their own self-driving vehicles and, according to the proposal, within five years driverless cars on the streets of WuHu will be the norm.

So while China may be relying on technology from other countries, their focus on infrastructure investment and regulation could help them win out.

Over the past year, England has burst onto the scene, becoming a legitimate contender in the driverless car race. It seems surprising for a country not particularly known for its car culture or technological innovation, but the English government has prioritized the regulation of the industry and incentivized its growth. In March, Google’s Eric Schmidt said that the company is considering testing its driverless vehicles in the UK, which may end up being a big coup for the country as the U.S. government has largely ignored Google’s requests to create federal regulations back home.

Last year, the UK launched a full-scale review of its highway codes and regulations, with the intention of revamping its regulatory system to accommodate AVs on the roads. The results of the review, which they expect to be completed by 2017, will include recommended rewrites to current transportation laws, which will state outright that driverless cars are legal on the country’s roads.  

As part of the Queen’s Speech this year, the government has also announced a Modern Transport Bill that would create a Code of Practice that will standardize the rules for testing self-driving vehicles and have the cars on the road nationwide by 2020. The Code allows for widespread AV testing across the country. That testing includes government investment in eight AV-related pilot projects, which span a number of self-driving technologies, from car-to-car communication to AV fleets designed to transport disabled or vision-impaired riders.

One pilot project—in partnership with the UK’s top car manufacturer, Jaguar Land Rover—dedicated $15 million to install wireless sensors on roads around the UK. Jaguar calls the program, dubbed the UK Connected Intelligent Transport Environment (UK-CITE), a “41-mile living laboratory.” Once installed, the sensors will communicate with a fleet of 100 connected autonomous research vehicles. The resulting data will give the company and the government a better sense of how self-driving cars affect road safety and traffic efficiency.

In a separate program, this July, London will be unveiling seven small driverless van-like vehicles they’re calling “pods” (inspired by the track-based pods the city uses to move people around Heathrow Airport) that will operate throughout the borough of Greenwich that includes residential streets. After a three-month test period of “invited” users, they’ll be available for general use. Three other cities in the UK will be launching similar programs this year.

England’s insurance industry is taking on AV liability, which is a big indication that even private industry is taking the government’s desire to win this race seriously. The country’s first self-driving car insurance policy, created by insurer Adrian Flux, covers AV owners against damage caused by hackers, satellite and navigation failures, and damage caused to the vehicle when the owner fails to control it while avoiding an accident. The policy also does not allow the car’s owner to sleep behind the wheel or drink and drive.

But while England has shown interest in entering this next great race, their vote to leave the European Union—and the loss of workers from throughout the EU—is likely to hold them back.

Regardless of which country wins out, we’re not getting results any time soon. The UK isn’t planning to have driverless cars on the streets until 2020, and China is aiming for 2025. The U.S. doesn’t even have a central federal plan, opting instead to leave regulations and planning up to individual states.

AV technology is still emerging, and it will be years before today’s investments—in regulation, infrastructure and the technology itself—begin to bear out for the three great superpowers. But the U.S., while at the forefront of AV technology, could falter with a “innovate now, regulate later” approach—leaving the country an archaic loser with a country full of cars still controlled by human hands.

Where we’re going, we’ll still need roads, but will we need drivers? This week, Vocativ explores the state of autonomous vehicles—their regulation, technology, and security—and how close we really are to a driverless future. Read more here:

Getting Rid Of Traffic Lights Could End Gridlock
If A Self-Driving Car Gets Into An Accident, Who Is To Blame?
How Driverless Cars Make Life-And-Death Decisions