Ahead of a speech to be delivered in DC by Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson on Thursday, the company has laid out its concerns about roadblocks to moving forward on self-driving tech in a press release. As has been frequently suggested by automakers and industry experts alike, Volvo thinks the biggest barriers are regulatory, not technological.
Part of that slow-moving regulatory framework needs to capture how liability works in an autonomous world — who takes the blame when a car controlled by a computer gets into a crash? Volvo says in its statement that it “will accept full liability whenever one if its cars is in autonomous mode,” which is really, really big news — most of the conversation around autonomous liability has been in posing questions, not answering them, so having automakers take full responsibility could go a long way toward simplifying the rules of a self-driving road.
To that end, Volvo also says that it “regards the hacking of a car as a criminal offense,” which falls in line with a long tradition of automakers trying to keep people out of the code that runs their vehicles. The software that runs cars is covered under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, though there’s a protracted battle going on trying to establish an exemption that would allow researchers to analyze it. Clearly, modified self-driving software — maliciously modified or otherwise — could post a threat to passengers and everyone around the vehicle, though there’s an argument to be made that security researchers should be able to help vet the code to make sure it’s safe from attacks.
Finally, Volvo is insisting that government agencies come together to form a consistent legal framework for self-driving cars that doesn’t vary by state. “The absence of one set of rules means car makers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet all the different guidelines of all 50 US states,” Samuelsson will say, according to the release. At present, only a small handful of states have explicit licensing programs in place for self-driving research; many others do not, where such cars sit in a legal gray zone. Texas, where Google recently started operating its self-driving fleet, is one such state.
None of this regulatory exasperation comes as a surprise: Automakers, Google, and others are moving rapidly and seem to be making great progress, so the concern that federal and state governments aren’t going to be able to keep up is a very real one. Taking on full responsibility for crashes could be a landmark moment in moving regulation along — but from Volvo’s perspective, that commitment is predicated on keeping people out of its code. Some may not agree that’s an acceptable approach.