Many have claimed that EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would “kill AI”. Shortly after its entry into force at the end of May 2018, the New York Times was already carrying industry concerns: “the new European data privacy legislation is so stringent that it could kill off data-driven online services and chill innovations like driverless cars, tech industry groups warn.” Following that train of thought, news outlets, general and specialized alike, have since then piled up on how such regulations on “data” would generally be harmful to innovation.

To be sure, other voices make themselves heard too. When trust in a technology is at stake, heralds of that technology understand that appearing to embrace regulation is a good PR move. Yet, beyond what could be seen as a cynical attitude, there are the pragmatists too. For them, regulation is a given, and with the right mindset, it can be transformed into an advantage.

This is such a mindset one could expect for European Union institutions. Speaking at a tech conference in Slovenia last April, EU Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc painted a rosy future for European transportation. Not only is Europe ready for automation, but it is embracing it. Already, car manufacturers must integrate certain automation components to all their new cars, such as lane assistance, distraction sensors and a black box used to “determine the cause of accidents.” And then not only cars, but ships, planes, trains, even drones are part of the EU’s vision for an integrated transportation system, as part of the “mobility as a service,” or MaaS vision. To support that MaaS (all-electric and paperless,) a “European GPS,” Galileo, and widespread 5G deployment, with even a priority on rural areas!

Is this all fluff? Far from seeking refuge from overbearing European red tape, most European AI and automation leaders see themselves in a “tortoise and the hare” paradigm: let the US innovators go fast and break things; we’ll take steady measured steps forward, but we’ll get there, and maybe even before the US. This is what a recent Bloomberg feature article on the booming European automation scene. Concretely, what are these steps? As far as AVs go, the first and main one is shared data sharing. Intense AV testing might be Arizona’s and California’s go-to model. But what is the use case for Waymo’s car beyond the dry, wide, and dunny streets of Phoenix? What about dense urban environments with narrow streets, like in Europe? Or snowy, low-density countryside roads, of which there are plenty in the US during the winter months? Safety in mass deployment will come from the capacity to aggregate everyone’s data, not just your own.

The most surprising part is that this push to open the “walled gardens” of the large OEMs does not even come from the government, but from tech firms. One of them, Austrian, is working an open AV operating system, with the intention to keep safety at the core of its business philosophy. As its founder told Bloomberg, “open to information sharing” is a requirement for safety. With such an angle, one is not surprised to read that the main challenge the company faces is the standardization of data flows; a tough challenge. But isn’t what innovation is about?

While the clever scientists won’t give the press all their tricks, many appear confident, stating simply that working with such regulations simply requires a “different approach.”

With roughly a clip a month – most of these being corporate fluff – Waymo’s YouTube channel is not the most exciting nor informative one. At least, those (like me) who keep looking for clues about Waymo’s whereabouts should not expect anything to come out of there.

That was until February 20th, when Waymo low-key published a 15 second clip of their car in action – the main screen showing a rendering of what the car “sees” and the corner thumbnail showing the view from the dash cam. The key point: Waymo’s car apparently crosses a broken-lights, police-controlled intersection without any hurdle. Amazing! Should we conclude that level 5 is at our very doorsteps?

The car and tech press was quick to spot this one, and reports were mostly praise. Yet Brad Templeton, in his piece for Forbes pinpoints at a few things that the clip does not say. First, we have the fact that Waymo operates in a geographically-enclosed area, where the streets, sidewalk and other hard infrastructure (lights, signs, and probably lines) are pre-mapped and already loaded in the algorithm. In other words, Waymo’s car does not discover stuff as it cruises along the streets of Northern California. Moreover, the street lights here do not work and so technically, this is just another four-way stop-signed intersection, with the difference that it is rather busy and there is a traffic police directing traffic in the middle. Finally, the car just goes straight, which is by far the easiest option (no left turn, for example…)

Beyond that, what Waymo alleges and wants us to see, is that car “recognizes” the policeman, or at the very least, recognizes that there is something person-shaped standing in the middle of the intersection and making certain gestures at the car, and that the car’s sensors and Waymo’s algorithms are now at the level of being able to understand hand signals of law enforcement officers.

Now I heard, less than a year ago, the CEO of a major player in the industry assert that such a thing was impossible – in reference to CAVs being able to detect and correctly interpret hand signals cyclists sometime use. It seems that a few months later, we’re there. Or are we? One issue which flew more or less under the radar, is how exactly does the car recognize the LEO here? Would a random passerby playing traffic cop have the same effect? If so, is that what we want?

As a member of the “Connected and Automated Vehicles: Preparing for a Mixed Fleet Future” Problem Solving Initiative class held at the University of Michigan Law School last semester, my team and I have had the opportunity to think about just that – how to make sure that road interactions stay as close as possible as they are today – and conversely how to foreclose awkward interactions or possible abuses that “new ways to communicate” would add. Should a simple hand motion be able to “command” a CAV? While such a question cuts across many domains, our perspective was a mostly legal one and our conclusion was that any new signal that CAV technology enables (from the perspective of pedestrians and other road users) should be non-mandatory and limited to enabling mutual understanding of intentions without affecting the behavior of the CAV. Now what we see in this video is the opposite; seemingly, the traffic police person is not equipped with special beacons that broadcast some form of “law enforcement” signal, and it is implied – although, unconfirmed – that there is no human intervention. We are left awed, maybe, but reassured? Maybe not.

The takeaway may be just this: the issues raised by this video are real ones, and are issues Waymo, and others, will at some point have to address publicly. Secrecy may be good for business, but only so much. Engagement by key industry players is of the highest importance, if we want to foster trust and avoid having the CAV technology crash land in our societies.

The “Trolley Problem” has been buzzing around for a while now, so much that it became the subject of large empirical studies which aimed at finding a solution to it that be as close to “our values” as possible, as more casually the subject of an episode of The Good Place.

Could it be, however, that the trolley problem isn’t one? In a recent article, the EU Observer, an investigative not-for-profit outlet based in Brussels, slashed at the European Commission for its “tunnel vision” with regards to CAVs and how it seems to embrace the benefits of this technological and social change without an ounce of doubt or skepticism. While there are certainly things to be worried about when it comes to CAV deployment (see previous posts from this very blog by fellow bloggers here and here) the famed trolley might not be one of those.

The trolley problem seeks to illustrate one of the choices that a self-driving algorithm must – allegedly – make. Faced with a situation where the only alternative to kill is to kill, the trolley problem asks the question of who is to be killed: the young? The old? The pedestrian? The foreigner? Those who put forward the trolley problem usually do so in order to show that as humans, we are forced with morally untenable alternative when coding algorithms, like deciding who is to be saved in an unavoidable crash.

The trolley problem is not a problem, however, because it makes a number of assumptions – too many. The result is a hypothetical scenario which is simple, almost elegant, but mostly blatantly wrong. One such assumption is the rails. Not necessarily the physical ones, like those of actual trolleys, but the ones on which the whole problem is cast. CAVs are not on rails, in any sense of the word, and their algorithms will include the opportunity to go “off-rails” when needed – like get on the shoulder or on the sidewalk. The rules of the road incorporate a certain amount of flexibility already, and such flexibilities will be built in the algorithm.

Moreover, the very purpose of the constant sensor input processed by the driving algorithm is precisely to avoid putting the CAV in such a situation where the only options that remain are collision or collision.

But what if? What if a collision is truly unavoidable? Even then, it is highly misleading to portray CAV algorithm design as a job where one has to incorporate a piece of code specific to every single decision to be made in the course of driving. The CAV will never be faced with an input of the type we all-too-often present the trolley problem: go left and kill this old woman, go right and kill this baby. The driving algorithm will certainly not understand the situation as one where it would kill someone; it may understand that a collision is imminent and that multiple paths are closed. What would it do, then? Break, I guess, and steer to try to avoid a collision, like the rest of us would do.

Maybe what the trolley problem truly reveals is the idea that we are uneasy with automated cars causing accidents – that is, they being machines, we are much more comfortable with the idea that they will be perfect and will be coded so that no accident may ever happen. If, as a first milestone, CAVs are as safe as human drivers, that would certainly be a great scientific achievement. I do recognize however that it might not be enough for the public perception, but that speaks more of our relationship to machines than to any truth behind the murderous trolley. All in all, it is unfortunate that such a problem continues to keep brains busy while there are more tangible problems (such as what to do with all those batteries) which deserve research, media attention and political action.

The European Parliament, the deliberative institution of the European Union which also acts as a legislator in certain circumstances, approved on February 20, 2019 the European Commission’s proposal for a new Regulation on motor vehicle safety. The proposal is now set to move to the next step of the EU legislative process; once enacted, an EU Regulation is directly applicable in the law of the 28 (soon to be 27) member states.

This regulation is noteworthy as it means to pave the way for Level 3 and Level 4 vehicles, by obligating car makers to integrate certain “advanced safety features” in their new cars, such as driver attention warnings, emergency braking and a lane-departure warning system. If many of us are familiar with such features which are already found in many recent cars, one may wonder how this would facilitate the deployment of Level 3 or even Level 4 cars. The intention of the European legislator is not outright obvious, but a more careful reading of the legislative proposal reveals that the aim goes much beyond the safety features themselves: “mandating advanced safety features for vehicles . . .  will help the drivers to gradually get accustomed to the new features and will enhance public trust and acceptance in the transition toward autonomous driving.” Looking further at the proposal reveals that another concern is the changing mobility landscape in general, with “more cyclists and pedestrians [and] an aging society.” Against this backdrop, there is a perceived need for legislation, as road safety metrics have at best stalled, and are even on the decline in certain parts of Europe.

In addition, Advanced Emergency Braking (AEB) systems have been trending at the transnational level, in these early months on 2019. The World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (known as WP.29) has recently put forward a draft resolution on such systems, in view of standardizing them and making them mandatory for the WP.29 members, which includes most Eurasian countries, along with a handful of Asia-Pacific and African countries. While the World Forum is hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE,) a regional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN, it notably does not include among its members certain UNECE member states such as the United States or Canada, which have so far refused to partake in World Forum. To be sure, the North American absence (along with that of China and India, for example) is not new; they have never partaken in the World Forum’s work since it started its operations in 1958. If the small yellow front corner lights one sees on US cars is not something you will ever see on any car circulating on the roads of a W.29 member state, one may wonder if the level of complexity involved in designing CAV systems will not forcibly push OEMs toward harmonization; it is one thing to live with having to manufacture different types of traffic lights, and it is another one to design and manufacture different CAV systems for different parts of the world.

Yet it is well known that certain North American regulators are not a big fan of such approach. In 2016, the US DoT proudly announced an industry commitment of almost all car makers to implement AEB systems in their cars, with the only requirement that such systems satisfy set safety objectives. If it seems like everyone would agree that limited aims are sometimes the best way to get closer to the ultimate, bigger goal, the regulating style varies. In the end, one must face the fact that by 2020, AEB systems will be harmonized for a substantial part of the global car market, and maybe, will be so in a de facto manner even in North America. And given that the World Forum has received a received a clear mandate from the EU – renewed as recently as May 2018 – to develop a global and comprehensive CAV standard, North American and other Asian governments who have so far declined to join the W.29 might only lose an opportunity to influence the outcome of such CAV standards by sticking to their guns.

The global automotive industry – and the world of global corporations – was shaken when Carlos Ghosn, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi’s (“RNM”) CEO, was arrested by Japanese authorities for alleged multiple counts of financial misconduct at the end of November 2018. For those who had been following developments inside the RNM “alliance,” this apparently sudden crackdown came as no surprise. Irrespective of the substance of the claims against Ghosn (and it is reasonable to believe that they are at least in part substantiated) the story of Ghosn downfall is a long one, told in long form in a recent Bloomberg piece.

One part of that story is the rise of Nissan, early on relegated to second fiddle in the Alliance’s grand scheme of things, and the relative stagnation of Renault since. If the former needed rescue at the time of the setup of the Alliance in 1999, facts on the ground have changed: Nissan’s market homerun with its all-electric, consumer-accessible Leaf, secured the Japanese car-maker a comfortable position. To say the least, these facts have not always been quite reflected in the corporate structure and decision-making practices at the Alliance level. Increasingly, the overbearing role of the French state, the largest (by a hair’s width) shareholder of Renault came about as an irritant to the Japanese partner. As reported by the French investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné of November 28, 2018,Ghosn was the keystone of the formal – and informal – corporate governance entente throughout the Alliance itself, and both Renault and Nissan individually, with executive or board positions in all three entities.Where Ghosn once stood alone now stands three different persons and the Japanese car-maker’s economic domination over its former French rescuer is just made more apparent. While French media were quick to point out that the nomination of Jean-Dominique Senard to be the head of Renault (and eventually Nissan, and eventually the Alliance itself) would bring everything back to normal, the Financial Times reported on February 19, 2019 that Nissan would oppose his nomination as CEO of the Japanese carmaker, thereby disavowing the old governance model.

In parallel to this corporate drama, as of February 2019, the Alliance is allegedly negotiating a deal with Alphabet’s Waymo that would have them build “robotaxis” and develop the spanning software infrastructure that mandatorily comes with such a project. Now, most of the press seems to think that a Waymo deal would bring some energy to revive the alliance after a hard hit. The revelations about the deal came with the usual disclaimers: an Alliance spokesman termed all this mere “speculation” and Waymo, well, Waymo draped itself in its usual ominous silence.

Could Waymo end up changing its mind about the whole thing following the deepening crisis rocking the Alliance? Us mere ill-informed mortals can only speculate about what Waymo does or what Waymo wants, and if a mature deal is not something to be ditched on a whim, it might make sense to keep the whole thing closer to Nissan than to Renault, and most of all steer clear from Eurasian transnational corporate politics. Rather than reviving the Alliance, the Waymo deal might just be an opportunity to ditch it. Interestingly enough, the original February 5th, 2019 report by Nikkei on the deal clearly states that it would involve the deployment of mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) infrastructure in Japan with cars made by Nissan (and maybe, made in Japan too?) Moreover, Renault’s stance in the CAV is not quite clear. It’s much hyped (at least judging by the awed French journalists) Symbioz – a level 3 CAV – is now nowhere to be seen. If I were Nissan and Waymo, I might just be going non merci on Renault for this time around.