Making Autonomous Vehicles Legal: A 10 Step Guide

By Bradley Tusk  |  October 15, 2015

Anyone paying attention to the news around self-driving cars and trucks knows the technology is advancing rapidly and the future is more or less upon us. Anyone familiar with the challenges of getting legislators to agree on even one complicated issue knows that building a logical regulatory framework around any new innovation is difficult. And so anyone familiar with the challenges of getting legislators at every level of government — municipal, county, state, federal — to create new policies and authorize new laws around a new innovation knows it’s nearly impossible.

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That’s why the policy, political and legal work around autonomous vehicle regulation has to move fast and has to happen now. Yes, it is happening in fits and starts by different interests in different jurisdictions, but absent a major effort to pick up the pace, the technology is going to be available years and years before most people can actually use it.

Based on my experience at the intersection of technology and politics, the following steps would help get things going and ensure we get the right result:

(1). Define the right regulatory framework now, rather than doing it piecemeal in every city, county and state. We need think tanks and policy groups across the ideological and political spectrum to start developing ideas and policies that can be adapted to virtually any jurisdict1on.

(2). Figure out who the major opponents will be — car insurers, for example, or truck drivers– and prepare for the coming fight (do your research, figure out the messaging, figure out how they’ll attack and how you counter, and lay the groundwork for the fight around the corner).

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(3). Figure out which real people you can mobilize and don’t just rely on the usual dynamic of interest groups. Politicians are used to hearing from lobbyists and trade associations. Hearing from lots of real people makes them nervous – and that’s a good thing.

(4). Define the benefits of autonomous vehicles so that people can understand how it tangibly impacts their lives (less traffic, less exhaust, fewer accidents, lower costs, etc…). Put it in real terms. Sitting in traffic less means a lot more than a study about gained productivity.

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(5). Do the research now – polling, focus groups, microtargeting – to understand how to best frame and talk about the issue. The more it’s about how actual people benefit, the better (it can’t just be about climate change or anything that feels intangible and removed from daily life).

(6). Make sure there’s a united front: even with no opposition, this will be incredibly complicated. If all of the different entities developing autonomous vehicles can’t agree amongst themselves about what the policies should be, it’ll take a lot longer.

(7). Start finding champions now: you need governors, mayors and federal legislators who can make this their issue, fight for logical rules and policies, understand the technology, understand the benefits and run with it.

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(8). Create a massive PAC and c4 that is so well funded (at least $1bn), it has a major deterrent effect that neutralizes the anti-groups who have been reliable sources of donations to electeds for decades.

(9). Build the grassroots network that allows you to reach the customers of every company working on autonomous vehicles. No one company making autonomous vehicles is going to want to share customer data, so finding a way to communicate broadly without giving up trade secrets is going to take some time.

(10). Show the future. At the end of the day, people are captivated by new technology, new cars, and by seeing what comes next. The more they see it, the more they’ll want it – and the harder it’ll be for the forces of the status quo to scare everyone into inaction.

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This is going to be hard no matter what. It’s going to take a long time no matter what. Not laying all of the groundwork now will only make it take that much longer.