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Should Government Brake or Accelerate Self-Driving Cars?

by Stephen Lawson
Autonomous cars are revving up to end an "epidemic" of road fatalities caused by human drivers, so government should get out of the way -- or should step in to verify they're safe.

Those were the dueling perspectives of panelists who took on the controversial technology at an event in Washington DC last week.

The panel, hosted and streamed by the news site Politico on April 19, brought together representatives from government and the auto industry as well as others involved in the emerging revolution in transportation. It showed there's little agreement yet on how to regulate self-driving cars.

Government should do all it can to get autonomous cars on the road quickly, said Robbie Diamond, CEO of Securing America's Future Energy, a group that advocates electric and autonomous vehicles. The main reason is the more than 37,000 deaths caused by human drivers each year in the US, he said.

"If this was an epidemic Ö the government would fall all over itself," Diamond said. "More lives could be saved doing this than [with] probably any drug at the FDA."

The AV START Act, currently stalled in the US Senate, would encourage automakers to ramp up AV testing by exempting as many as 100,000 cars per manufacturer from existing safety standards. It won a big endorsement from Jonathan Weinberger, vice president of innovation and technology at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

"We need enough exemptions, to get enough testing, to get enough data, to make smart policy decisions," Weinberger said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can set and enforce rules for AVs when more data is in, and it should do so in less than the ten to 15 years it takes now, he said.

AV START would also impose some new regulation. If it had been on the books when pedestrian Elaine Herzberg was killed by a self-driving Uber SUV in Arizona last month, Uber would have had to file a standard safety evaluation report, Weinberger said. Without it, such reports are still voluntary at the federal level.

Opponents are calling for more oversight immediately. Manufacturers can't be trusted to develop safe AV systems without independent verification, said panelist Robert Molloy, director of the Office of Highway Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board.

"There have been reports of how safe certain cars are, but that's purely generated at the manufacturer level," Molloy said. The data should be shared openly so more researchers can study it and identify where it falls short, he said. For example, if an AV system has driven only on freeways, that will skew its safety record, because freeways are safer places to drive.

Government may bear some of the blame for safety shortcomings in AVs because it hasn't imposed strong enough standards on automated safety systems that go into the cars, such as emergency braking, Molloy said.

"When these automated vehicles end up crashing into something, usually it's not because the automation said, 'Crash,' and ignored the safety systems. The safety systems didn't work well to detect the object and to respond," he said.

Even if the government does rate the safety of every AV model, it should help consumers know what they're buying into, said Melba Kurman, co-author of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead. Cars should get a "human-safe" rating that compares their safety to that of a human-driven car, the same way horsepower told consumers how early automobiles compared with horse-drawn carriages, she said.

Where AVs still lag behind people is in recognizing and responding to the unexpected, Kurman and others said. This is why airliners still have pilots even with autopilot systems, said Christopher Hart, founder of consultancy Hart Solutions LLC and a former NTSB chairman.

Another challenge that will exist until cars are fully autonomous is how humans interact with the technology. In the fatal crash of a Tesla on Autopilot in 2016, the car measured driver engagement through pressure on the steering wheel, so the driver was able to turn off an alarm without paying attention to the road. "That was a failure to consider the human element in this design," Hart said.

The panel was sponsored by Intel, which makes self-driving systems through its Mobileye division and has a major stake in how AVs are perceived and rolled out.

"People are downright scared of autonomous vehicles," said Jack Weast, Intel's chief system architect for automated driving. "That's a problem for us as an industry."

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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