As companies race to be the first to deliver autonomous vehicle technology to the public, the question remains as to how this new technology should be regulated. Should we limit regulations to give manufacturers the ability to deploy autonomous vehicles (and their related benefits) as quickly as possible or should we proceed with caution by regulating the technology to manage their impact on society? These questions took center stage last week as multiple government entities weighed in on the debate.
On Tuesday, September 12, US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the release of NHTSA’s updated guidance on highly automated vehicles, called “Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety.” The updated guidance, which replaces last year’s “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” emphasizes a hands-off approach to speed the release of automated vehicle technology. While this updated guidance will likely benefit the manufacturers, safety advocates raise concerns that it may put drivers at risk.
These risks were highlighted just a few hours earlier that same day when the NTSB released its findings from the investigation of a fatal Tesla crash from May, 2016. The NTSB issued seven safety recommendations resulting from the crash and reported that the probable cause was a combination of the truck driver’s failure to yield the right of way and the Tesla driver’s “inattention due to overreliance on vehicle automation.” The NTSB’s findings present a contrasting view to the results of NHTSA’s investigation of the same crash, which did not identify any safety-related defects with Tesla’s technology.
To date, much of the conversation on autonomous vehicles has related to consumer use, which was the main motivation behind a bill on driverless vehicles, called the “Self Drive Act,” which recently passed in the House. However, there are concerns that the release of autonomous commercial vehicles could disrupt other facets of the transportation industry, and, as a result, the topic of commercial vehicles has been delaying Senate legislation on driverless vehicles. With this issue in mind, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened a hearing on Wednesday titled “Transportation Innovation: Automated Trucks and our Nation’s Highways” to discuss automated truck safety technology and its potential impacts on transportation jobs.
The companies developing autonomous vehicles promise a brave new world of improved safety, increased access to transportation, and reduced congestion on our roads. But as the events of the last week show, their societal impacts include negative consequences that need to be weighed against the benefits. The question remains as how much of that debate will be driven by policymakers, or by the vehicle manufacturers.
Michael Clamann oversees the development and publication of SciPol content related to robotics and AI. He is also a Senior Research Scientist in the Humans and Autonomy Lab (HAL) within Duke Robotics and an Associate Director at the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety.