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Cybersecurity, Privacy and Safety Among Self-Driving Car Concerns Raised During Senate Hearing

A U.S. Senate Committee heard testimony from private industry and academia on March 15 about potential issues with autonomous vehicles.

So far, the U.S. Department of Transportation and its sub-offices have enthusiastically supported the development of self-driving cars, and have hinted that they want to help clear a path for them even as states like California pump the brakes on deployment.

But if a March 15 committee hearing in the Senate is any indication, Congress might not be willing to move as fast as the DOT. Issues like cybersecurity, privacy and safety certification could stand in the way.

Senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation sat down with representatives of Google, Delphi Automotive, General Motors and Lyft, along with a machinery researcher from Duke University, to talk about moving forward on regulating autonomous vehicles. And while everybody in the room was happy about the potential for the vehicles to prevent accidents and cut down on traffic jams, there were a couple sticking points as well.

Two big ones were cybersecurity and privacy — that is, if cars begin relying more on computers, then how will their manufacturers protect them against hackers? How much information from those computers will the companies that make them be able to access, and will they be able to sell that information?

To the consternation of Sens. Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, co-sponsors on the SPY Car Act that would set standards for automotive cybersecurity, the corporate representatives shied away from definitive answers to those questions. The senators asked several times whether the panelists thought that there should be minimum standards for privacy and cybersecurity, and all but one participant declined to say yes or no.

The one panelist who said yes was Mary Louise Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab. Cummings agreed that there should be minimum standards in those areas, and also urged the committee not to rush the deployment of self-driving vehicles. Though Chris Urmson, leader of Google’s self-driving car project, told the senators that the company’s software is improving after 1.4 million miles of driving on public roads, Cummings insisted that the country needs more information before allowing widespread sale of the cars.

“New York taxicabs drive 1.4 million miles in just over a day,” she said.

Toward that end, she said that one of the most helpful steps the federal government could take in facilitating the development of self-driving cars would be to direct the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to step in and develop standards for safety certification of those vehicles.

NHTSA has already acknowledged that that will take some work. While federal motor vehicle safety standards can support some of the concepts required for autonomous vehicles, like declaring that software can count as a “driver” to satisfy regulations, other pieces of the rules will need to be rewritten. For instance, there are clear standards about cars needing steering wheels and brake pedals — things Google’s car lacks.

Cummings said that despite the advances in technology that have been made in the past few years, there are many potential issues that need to be addressed before fully self-driving cars like Google’s are truly ready for the road.

“It is not uncommon, in many parts of the country, for people to drive with GPS jammers in their trunks to make sure people don’t know where they are,” she said. “That could [interfere] with self-driving systems.”

As such, she said the government should require the companies developing autonomous vehicles to hand over their safety data in order to support standards for what the vehicles need to be able to handle.

“Any certification of self-driving cars will not be possible until manufacturers [embrace] transparency,” Cummings told the committee.

Still, many senators on the committee asked the automakers how they could help them get their vehicles to market.

“Because so much is possible, we must be careful not to stymie innovation,” said Sen. John Thune, chair of the committee.

The corporate representatives on the panel agreed that one big necessary step will be creating regulatory consistency across the country. If, for example, California were to adopt its proposed regulations that would require a licensed driver to sit behind the wheel, while Nevada were to allow driverless cars, that could create problems.

NHTSA is already stepping in on that front, announcing in January that it intends to release guidelines for state regulations of AVs before the end of the year.

“If every state were to go its own way," Urmson said, "it would be … impractical to operate an autonomous vehicle across state boundaries."

Urmson asked the senators to give the Secretary of Transportation express permission to allow new innovation in automobiles as long as they are safer than the status quo, a standard automakers have also supported when speaking with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We believe that to fully realize those [safety benefits] and many more," he said, "the car needs to be fully self-driving."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.