Two global automotive suppliers sent a pair of sedans—a Cadillac ATS and a Chrysler 300—equipped with self-driving technology on a roundabout journey of roughly 350 miles, a trip that included a tricky tunnel and a long steel bridge. The cars drove in fully autonomous mode for about 92 percent of the route, but what really set this demonstration apart was that it was a regulatory challenge as much as a technical one.
The two-car caravan started in Detroit, the Cadillac equipped with a Magna self-driving system and the Chrysler with one from Continental. The cars crossed into Canada via the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, which runs under the Detroit River. From Windsor, Ontario, they headed east through the province, turning north toward Sarnia, on the Saint Clair River, where they crossed the Blue Water Bridge and returned to the United States at Port Huron, Michigan. The cars were clearly chosen with a keen eye on political optics: The Cadillac is built in Michigan and the Chrysler in Ontario, which is also Magna’s home province.
Government officials and company executives involved with the demonstration believe it marks the first time an autonomous-vehicle test has ventured across an international border. It’s an important milestone, if only because it foretells an aspect of automated driving that most developers and regulators have barely began to consider. These issues might be more of more immediate concern for Magna and Continental in Europe, where both firms conduct a lot of testing and presumably will need to cross borders more often as a matter of course. Both companies, though, say they have not yet conducted multinational test drives in Europe.
“How does it approach the border station and how does
it know where to stop? It’s interesting, because we’re
so focused on the technology.”
– Kirk Steudle, Michigan DOT
Automakers are already worried about the prospect of laws that govern autonomous vehicles varying significantly from state to state in the United States, which could make travel across state lines legally untenable. They’re lobbying the federal government to develop a single set of laws and standards to apply nationwide. Adding the prospect of international travel into that regulatory landscape further complicates matters.
This demonstration, which took place on July 31, provided a good example. Michigan’s autonomous-vehicle laws, passed in November 2016, are among the most permissive in the nation, allowing for the testing of vehicles without steering wheels or other traditional controls. In Ontario, on the other hand, the companies needed to obtain special permission to conduct tests of autonomous technology. And officials from both governments contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ensure the border didn’t become a barrier.
“We were working very closely with Customs, and they were very interested in figuring out how they should interact with this,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). “We didn’t have any issues, and they were interested and engaged.”
A spokesperson from Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, did not return a request for comment. But other law-enforcement agencies are already concerned about being excluded when it comes to autonomous-vehicle developments, and questions about how Customs might handle future interactions with autonomous vehicles and the occupants within them abound.
For instance, should autonomous vehicles have the equivalent of a vehicular passport that would let federal agents know whether the vehicle’s autonomous features and systems are legal on the roads it’s about to drive on? How can customs agents let autonomous cars know they should pull aside for further inspection? Many of the ride-share plans for autonomous vehicles suggest that they will travel without human occupants sometimes, presenting the possibility of an empty car seeking to cross a border. Would self-driving cars be required to let customs agents know their destination or other details from their journeys that could conflict with privacy laws? Alternately, could autonomous-vehicle operators be required to file something akin to a vehicular flight plan before departing and provide passport information on the vehicle’s occupants, which might allow them to breeze through border control?
“That’s all possible, and I think there’s a whole bunch of issues that haven’t been explored,” Steudle said. “How does it approach the border station and how does it know where to stop? It’s interesting, because we’re so focused on the technology. But there also is this side of it.”
The demonstration required the cooperation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Canadian Customs and Border Protection, officials from the Michigan Department of Transportation, Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, Canada Border Services Agency, and Federal Bridge Corporation. Going forward, officials on both sides are hoping to ensure a seamless process.
To that end, officials from MDOT and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation signed a memorandum of understanding at the drive’s completion in Traverse City, Michigan, that calls for the agencies to work together on the development of autonomous and connected vehicles. This is the second such agreement between the two, and it’s aimed specifically at exploring rules and regulations as well as data collection.
For all the regulatory hurdles cleared, one of the few hiccups turned out to be technical. When the vehicles and their human safety drivers had cleared Customs and inched past the stations, Steudle said, the cars hesitated to proceed onto the wide apron of concrete beyond the booth because it contained no lane markings–a familiar sight to any human driver. The safety drivers took over and helped the vehicles get back onto their routes. At least for this international trip, they were on their way.