Applied is excited to introduce a new blog post series on transportation policy. In each blog, leading experts in the transportation policy space will share their unique professional backgrounds, perspectives on how emerging technologies are helping to improve transportation, and insights on policy and regulations.
Today, we are excited to feature our first guest in the series, Ariel Wolf. Ariel leads Venable’s Autonomous and Connected Mobility group. Ariel’s legal work includes serving as general counsel to the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA), the nation’s leading coalition of autonomous vehicle (AV) developers, to advance federal, state, and international regulatory priorities for the AV industry. Previously, Ariel served as a senior official in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Secretary. He also served as a senior policy advisor in the U.S. Senate.
What inspired you to choose a career in transportation? What do you enjoy most about your work?
My path to a career in transportation was perhaps more circuitous than others. After graduating college, I went to work as a staffer in the U.S. Senate, focusing on foreign policy and human rights. After law school, I went to a firm and worked in privacy law. But during that time we started to see a lot of talk about emerging mobility technology, including AVs. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to be a part of it.
The break came when I got a call to join the U.S. Department of Transportation and work for Secretary Elaine Chao. My portfolio included looking at policy and regulations affecting these new technologies, and when I went back to the law firm, I stayed focused on this area. What makes the work most enjoyable is the sense that everyone you encounter—clients, attorneys, advocates, policymakers, and other stakeholders—we are all building something new together. There are plenty of disagreements and challenges, but fundamentally the common goal is to improve safety. That’s not the case in every area of law.
Which interesting use cases have you come across where emerging technologies are helping to solve a major pain point in transportation, such as enabling safety?
There are lots of technologies that are being developed and deployed to do this. Of course, autonomy has to be at or near the top. We know that humans are bad drivers and that the skyrocketing numbers of crashes and fatalities are due to human error and impairment. You can see a real passion for trying to solve that, from many different corners. It’s not limited to developers of automated driving systems. There are sensor manufacturers as well that look at both automotive and infrastructure applications. But also virtual testing providers like Applied Intuition—with key technology that didn’t exist in this area before—are empowering the leading vehicle manufacturers to validate concepts and capabilities at scale. All of the edge cases and mapping environments can undergo rigorous testing before the tech is put on the road. That is a massive shift and already is leading to real safety gains.
… virtual testing providers like Applied Intuition … are empowering the leading vehicle manufacturers to validate concepts and capabilities at scale. All of the edge cases and mapping environments can undergo rigorous testing before the tech is put on the road. That is a massive shift and already is leading to real safety gains.
In your view, what more can be done to build public trust in advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and AV technology?
Step one here is to reduce—and maybe one day, eliminate—the confusion and conflation that surround these two areas. ADAS and AV are separate technologies that require different regulatory approaches. What we have seen and continue to see is the marketing of ADAS products as fully autonomous. The human drivers who are supposed to be taking control of the wheel are confused. This is leading to problems. Adding to that, the media coverage can conflate the issue, and policymakers may not be able to follow the issue closely.
Beyond clearing up the terminology, we need to find more ways of getting the public to interact with AV technology. To experience an AV is to believe in its promise. Of course, regulators also play a major role and need to find a way forward to establish a framework for governing autonomous technology. On the ADAS side, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is undertaking a rulemaking process for automatic emergency braking. This is long in the making, and it is good to see it move forward. But there is much more that can be done.
How can artificial intelligence (AI) play a positive role in advancing the future of transportation?
Everyone is talking about how AI is going to transform the economy, but the fact is that AI has been built into the transportation sector for over a decade now. AV developers have been testing AV technology in vehicles across the country and have been commercializing it increasingly through ride-hail and trucking applications. The central mission for AI-powered transportation is safety—how to ensure the technology is safe and how it will make the roads safer. In the overall AI conversation, there is a lot to learn from the transportation sector. We should be looking to the engineers of virtual testing software and AV technology for ideas on how to ensure the responsible deployment of AI.
The central mission for AI-powered transportation is safety—how to ensure the technology is safe and how it will make the roads safer … We should be looking to the engineers of virtual testing software and AV technology for ideas on how to ensure the responsible deployment of AI.
What’s one important development to watch in federal transportation policy this year?
The most important development remains the massive drive to electrify the transportation fleet. So much money and so many federal government incentives and policies are in place to bring about this monumental change. Beyond the electric vehicle (EV) shift, we are going to see AVs start to scale this year as several companies have built multi-city ride-hail operations and others are working on Level 3 AVs to sell. The technology could scale faster if federal regulators would find a way to remove barriers to novel vehicle designs in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), but even there, we may see a push around the issue and move toward self-certification. The competition with China is going to drive some of the AV developments, as manufacturers are pushed to decouple their supply chains.
Disclaimer: Ariel serves as a consultant for Applied Intuition.