Uncertainty over 2016 NHTSA Guidance Among Obstacles for Driverless Cars

March 14, 2017–Testing, consumer acceptance, and uncertainty about the direction the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will take under President Trump are all obstacles facing the deployment of self-driving cars, which may be “many years” away, but cars that are not fully autonomous, as well as connected car capabilities, may be in use much sooner, panelists said today during the Consumer Technology Association’s Innovation Policy Day at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, Texas.

In theory, testing should involve a trillion miles of driving or more, but practically, not only are there not enough cars equipped with any given technology to make that feasible, but there are not enough humans to assess whether the technology is functioning well enough, said Ram Vasudevan, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s MCity program.  The cars cannot assess themselves, he said.

Hilary Cain of Toyota said that there’s “a lot of speculation that ride-sharing will be the first place you’ll see this technology,” which would enable the cost to be spread across more users and at the same time would address the consumer acceptance issue by exposing more users to the technology. Ms. Cain said that “since the beginning of the year we’ve seen close to 70 different bills in dozens of different states” on driverless cars.  “We need a single national framework,” she added, noting that NHTSA put forward some guidance last year, but “I don’t think anybody knows if the Trump administration is going to scrap what the Obama administration did at the end.”

Last September NHTSA offered vehicle performance guidance for designers and manufacturers, which includes a 15-point safety assessment, as part of a broader policy announcement that included a model state policy drawing the line between federal and state jurisdiction; existing regulatory tools that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can use in overseeing the safe development of automated vehicles; and potential new tools that NHTSA could use, some of which would require congressional action (TRDaily, Sept. 19, 2016). “We don’t know right now if we’re supposed to be submitting safety assessments or not,” given the change of administration, she said.

Cathy Chase of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said that given the demand for expertise in this technology in the private sector, it’s important to make sure NHTSA “gets the talent and resources it needs” to oversee the new technology.

Ms. Cain complained that California’s requirement for any company testing self-driving cars in the state to file an annual “disengagement” report, detailing any incidents in which a person took over control of the car from the software, “sounds good” as a way to compare which technology works best, “but not all miles are created equal.”  Some companies may report fewer disengagements because they are not subjecting their technology to challenging conditions, she suggested.

Ms. Chase, however, said the reports are important because disengagements “could be an indication that there are significant problems happening.”

Asked about the role for road infrastructure improvements such as radio beacons and “smart strips,” Mr. Vasudevan said, “We kind of have an allergy in this country to doing infrastructure spending in a big way.”

Asked about the ethical questions involved in writing software for cars to decide between hitting different groups of pedestrians, for example, Ms. Cain said that this is referred to the “trolley problem,” in which a trolley can only decide between two tracks at a switch, and there are, for example, “five old ladies” on one track and “five kids” on the other.  “I don’t know about you, but I have never encountered the trolley problem in 40 years of driving,” she said.

In response to the moderator’s questions about when consumers should expect “to be able to get into a self-driving car,” Ms. Cain said that “if you’re talking about highway system, very soon,” and that the technology is essentially “already there.”  For a “geo-fenced” situation in which the car is limited in where it can drive, she said that should also be available soon.  But for “anywhere, anytime” driving, it will be “a long time — a lot longer than people will admit,” she said.

Mr. Vasudevan agreed that “Anywhere, anytime, [under] any conditions” such as a blizzard, “that’s really hard”  Human drivers “are bad at that” as well, he pointed out.

Ms. Chase said that the technology is “being marketed as luxury,” but “when this technology will save lives, we think it should be standard.”

Ms. Cain said that it is “standard at Toyota, all the way down to Yaris.” — Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily