While the self-driving industry has shown readiness to begin an era of transportation that no longer includes human safety drivers behind the wheel, regulators have not been moving as fast.
Waymo has expanded its rider-only operations in metro Phoenix.
Cruise said its driverless vehicles will be in San Francisco by the end of the year, and Motional, the consumer-facing brand created by the Aptiv-Hyundai joint venture, has received a permit to conduct driverless trips in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, law makers at every level of government still are sorting the new rules of the road. The World Economic Forum wants to provide a map for officials to implement policies.
In a report issued this month, the WEF, an international organization that aims to enhance public-private collaboration, lays out ways in which regulators who lack technical expertise can move from a present-day murkiness—in which there's no clear definition for "safety"—toward practical frameworks.
The report, "Safe Drive Initiative: Creating Safe Autonomous Vehicle Policy," reviews the approaches of multiple countries and states and finds a scattershot landscape that, in some fashion, creates a complicated patchwork of regulation and policy. In the U.S., the report notes, an absence of a federal AV framework could lead to regional coalitions of states with similar goals or geographies banding together to set standards or requirements.
Countries that set a strong national policy can gain certain fast-mover advantages. Tim Dawkins, lead author of the report, says that autonomous-vehicle operations are ultimately conducted at the local level. Policies that might work in Phoenix might not work in Pittsburgh.
"Safety needs to be defined by the operating environment," he said. "That unfortunately is not going to allow interoperable licensing or permitting approaches. It's just the reality of development. But if we agree on common terms and at a baseline level that a learner's permit is a first step, that's where we see this framework fitting."
Chief among the WEF's recommendations: Develop scenario-based assessments that represent the challenges AVs will face in their given environments. These assessments can occur through a combination of simulation, closed-course testing and real-world road tests and be based on a scenario library that can be subsequently be used by regulators to set safety benchmarks.
"No two companies should have to experience the same near-miss twice, and this becomes a shared resource, and breaks down tendencies to compete on the basis of safety," says Michelle Avary, head of automotive and autonomous mobility at the WEF.
In a world where there's not yet specific benchmarks for automated vehicles nor agreed-upon understandings of safety thresholds, the report provides a firm foundation for narrowing down those definitions. With driverless deployments beginning to materialize, the time for those conversations is now.