Friday, December 23, 2016

Driverless Cars This Fall: Regulations and Questions

Another three months has gone by in this almost $1 trillion area of investment and future promise.  What has happened on the government and commentary side?

On September 19th, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its first set of what could be called guidelines on semiautonomous and fully self-driving vehicles.  In an apparent attempt to guide the technology’s progress without putting up roadblocks, this federal agency named 15 points just short of formal laws.  Per Cecilia Kang in The New York Times the next day, they were sharing data on accidents with regulators, defining privacy expectations for drivers, manufacturers getting safety algorithms validated by others, hacking prevention, effective capability to move control back and forth from systems to drivers, ensuring damage to cars from accidents would be no worse than to today’s ordinary meatmobiles, operation education, a technological-improvement certification requirement, preventing dangerously damaged driverless cars from operating before repairs, ability to follow local traffic laws but being able to violate them in order to prevent a crash, attention to the ethical issues of vehicles protecting their occupants or others first, proof of operational testing and validation, ability to respond to normal and abnormal driving situations, assessing the driver’s fitness to take control, and adequate technology validation including simulations, test-track and road testing.  These make up a comprehensive set of areas to be addressed, and, especially when framed as strong suggestions rather than laws, seem truly positive to me, with one exception.  The idea that, as Kang put it, “any software updates or new driverless features must be submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” could be a recipe for bureaucratic backlogs, and, with the developers of these vehicles knowing far more than federal regulators, would be better replaced with something more cooperative, along the lines of corporate technologists making cases to their managements for upgrades or implementations with quick, perhaps emailed, approvals or requests for more information.  Otherwise, government’s attitude toward self-driving capability seems excellent, with President Barack Obama saying, in a Pittsburgh newspaper editorial also that Monday, that such vehicles could save tens of thousands of lives a year, and that the guidelines above were “flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.”  In all, Washington, in contrast with its response to many other things, hit the right notes here.

Two weeks later, the Times editorial staff, in “Ushering in a Safe, Driverless Future,” took a more regulatory and less positive view, saying that self-driving cars would scare people, with “those fears… made all the more real by a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S that was traveling on autopilot in May.”  Although the piece tipped its hat to the 35,000 auto accident fatalities last year, at which rate there have been over 20,000 since this last driverless one, it said that “automakers and technology companies might resist mandatory rules, but they shouldn’t,” as that would reassure all that “companies are not using them as crash test dummies.”  I was disappointed to see advocacy of stricter standards than what the Department of Transportation seems to intend, and think that the potential for slow regulatory approval could cost many more lives than one in seven months. 

Eleven weeks after the announcement above, Bill McGee’s “Driverless cars for travelers:  More questions than answers” appeared in USA Today.  The December 7th piece presented many queries, mostly answered already as above by the Department of Transportation, but with more emphasis on driver training and how to avoid excessive distraction.  It also brought up enough follow-on issues for an entire speculative book, such as the effect on auto insurance, determination of who or what is responsible for mishaps, taxation impacts, and even what might happen to the travel industry. 

The most negative response I saw, though, was from Jamie Lincoln Kitman, again on the New York Times op-ed page.  December 19th’s “Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?” was a compendium of the worst anyone could say about self-driving technology, ranging from its most doubtful, extreme, and uncommonly touted advantages (lower harmful emissions?  no airbags?), to allegedly required enormous infrastructure improvements, job losses by “millions of truck and taxi drivers,” the idea that it will cause mass transit to go away, and even questioning federal accident statistics.  Some of his concerns have validity, but the piece was strangely one-sided.  It was especially odd to see someone connected with the driving-related press, in this case “the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine,” with this attitude.  There is a story behind this article, but unfortunately I don’t know what it is.

Many technical and organizational things have also happened in the past three months – they will be the subject of next week’s post.  In the meantime, you and your family have a great Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever your brand may be! 

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