What the IoT Needs: More Laws

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 5/22/2014 | 47 comments

David Wagner

It is a rare thing when you find me advocating for the government to get more involved in regulating technology, but when it comes to the Internet of Things, that is what I'm advocating. It isn't that I want officials to tell us what we can't do. In this case, I want them to tell us what we can. And California is taking the lead with new regulations around self-driving cars.

Now, self-driving cars won't necessarily be the first step in the IoT, because of their expense and complexity, but they are likely to be one of the most important. It is cute enough to make a smart thermostat as a proof of concept, but the real promise of the IoT will be here with self-driving cars.

These vehicles will need to communicate with one another and the world around them to work. In a fleet, self-driving cars can drive an inch apart at highway speeds, because they communicate about one another's movements. If one needs to apply the brakes, all cars near it can do so at the same time and with the same amount of pressure to avoid accidents. If one needs to change lanes to make a turn, the others can subtly adjust to make room. If a sudden burst of cars approaches an intersection, they can communicate to the traffic light, so it can manage the intersection better. Self-driving cars will need to talk to parking lots to find spaces and pay for parking. And they need to communicate with people to know where to pick them up and when they’ll be needed again. In other words, the network required to move a few million cars around the country with no people intervening makes most of the rest of the IoT seem like child's play.

This is why I'm excited that the state of California just decided to regulate self-driving cars. There's no need to regulate the smart thermostats (yet), but to get the real work going on the IoT, we need to start laying some groundwork for what's allowed.

Depending on your interpretation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rules, either no self-driving cars are allowed, or all self-driving cars are allowed. That's because there are absolutely no rules governing them at all. The federal government is "years away, years away, from developing regulations for autonomous vehicles," Bernard Soriano, deputy director of the California DMV, told the Atlantic.

So California decided to take matters into its own hands and help bring clarity to the industry without ruining it. A 2012 bill requiring the DMV to come up with regulations said, "The State of California, which presently does not prohibit or specifically regulate the operation of autonomous vehicles, desires to encourage the current and future development, testing, and operation of autonomous vehicles on the public roads of the state."

To that end, the DMV has come up with a relatively easy set of rules. Companies only have to pay $150 for an application fee (less than it costs to register a car) and carry a $5 million insurance policy (not all that different from the average car insurance policy, give or take a few million in liability). For this, they can operate as many as 10 vehicles with up to 20 "drivers."

Eventually, it is assumed that car companies will need bigger test groups, but for now that seems like an amazingly small hurdle for them to jump while they are perfecting the technology. Given the desire not to hinder the development of the product (which would obviously be great for California's economy), you can assume the rules will grow with the needs of the companies.

Not all IoT products need regulations just to be made possible, but where new areas of autonomous decision making, security, or liability are involved, governments could help move the IoT closer to reality by providing points of clarity on what is possible without restricting the effort.

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