Self-driving cars are expected to radically transform transportation as we know it.
But the tech-filled vehicles will become data goldmines for governments, manufacturers, and hackers — and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is making sure it gets access to the rich repository of information.
The agency today released its Federal Autonomous Vehicles Policy (PDF), a document that will govern the way self-driving cars are developed, regulated, and policed in the U.S. According to the policy paper, NHTSA hopes to broaden the guidelines’ reach by collaborating with the governments of Canada and Mexico. The federal guidelines will push autonomous vehicle manufacturers into sharing data about their failures with each other and with the government, a move that is already being met with resistance from the tech and automotive industries.
When self-driving cars crash, data from their must be retrieved by NHTSA and the manufacturer for crash reconstruction and analysis. “Vehicles should record, at a minimum, all information relevant to the [crash] and the performance of the system, so the circumstances of the event can be reconstructed,” the policy says. That record will then be shared with federal regulators and other manufacturers, and manufacturers are on the hook for ensuring their customers understand how their crash data will be distributed.
How that data will be shared between the companies racing against each other to build the first self-driving car is yet to be determined, but what’s clear is that tech companies aren’t happy about the idea. David Strickland, who represents Uber, Google, and Lyft through the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, told reporters today that “the devil is in the details” when it comes to data sharing, and that’s going to be a sticking point for all private companies involved, especially in a space as closely competitive as autonomous vehicles.
Strickland indicated that the industry would likely push back against the data sharing requirements. “There is competitor data, there’s confidential business information, there’s a number of aspects which have to be respected. But on the other hand, safety is a number one priority, and figuring out the right context and space that we can ensure that while protecting the data rights and, frankly, the property of all the innovators and manufacturers should be properly balanced and that’s going to take some time,” he said.
Of course, the NHTSA knows that convincing manufacturers to share their crash data isn’t going to be easy. The agency is exploring data sharing mechanisms that will keep data anonymous and avoid antitrust complaints. “While the specific data elements to be shared will need further refinement, the mechanisms for sharing can be established,” the federal guidelines say.
Car companies are not known for embracing the concept of open source. Exceptions make headlines, as when Tesla made its patents available to any competitor who wants to use them “in good faith” in 2014. But Tesla still guards the driving data that powers its Autopilot autonomy features, which is gathered from the Tesla vehicle fleet. Tesla did, however, end up complying with both an initial request from the NHTSA for data logs from the fatal May 7 Model S crash, and with a modified follow-up request from the agency. George Hotz’s Autopilot-syle highway self-driving startup Comma.ai open-sourced the driving data it used to build its first successful prototype, but it’s also keeping a far greater store of data to itself as a competitive hedge.
In recent conversations with TechCrunch, Uber, Lyft and GM have all separately pointed to the vast stores of driving data collected by their respective fleets as key competitive advantages in the race to develop truly effective autonomy.