Automakers and others want the human element out of AVs altogether—now

This column published as "Can swift and safe be done responsibly?" in Fall 2019 issue

Brian W. Budzynski / October 22, 2019
Brian W. Budzynski

The push to get driverless vehicles out on public roadways, in order to gather more data and vet the potential for widespread adoption, continues to press onward. Recently, multiple companies—including General Motors, Alphabet’s Waymo, Lyft, Volvo, Intel, and Mercedes Benz—submitted public comments on proposed legislation to change the rules for self-driving vehicles to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The aforementioned companies were among 90 organizations to offer such comments, the period for which closed at the end of August. 

These companies are encouraging federal safety regulators to, according to a report at CNBC, “swiftly, yet safely, update laws to better accommodate the testing and approval of fully autonomous vehicles on U.S. public roadways, even those without driver controls.”

Federal regulators are considering allowing self-driving vehicles to exist in operation on roadways without any human controls—e.g., steering wheel or brake pedal—present inside the vehicle. 

According to the report, GM released a statement saying, “GM/Cruise supports NHTSA establishing new definitions that apply only to ADS-DVs [autonomous vehicles] without manual controls. It would allow NHTSA to clearly delineate, where necessary, the requirements that apply to ADS-DV versus those that apply to traditional vehicles.”

As you might imagine, such a regulatory change has its detractors. Some point to the March 2018 incident in Arizona involving an autonomous Uber vehicle that resulted in a pedestrian death. In that instance, for those who may have forgotten, the human backup driver was watching a television program on his phone, rather than keeping his attention on the road.

The Center for Auto Safety released a comment on the proposed no-manual-controls changes, in which it stated “[W]e strongly question the agency’s choice to prioritize a potential roll back of important protections afforded by the current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), in order to accommodate the introduction of vehicle technology that is in its infancy and quite likely decades away from widespread practical utility. A more safety focused course of action would be to immediately work to write mandatory performance standards for existing advanced safety features, such as automatic emergency braking. [The] Center respectfully requests that NHTSA reconsider its current insistence on the necessity of prioritizing the evaluation and potential truncating of current safety standards in the service of commercial entities instead of public needs.”

While I applaud the eagerness with which automakers are investing in driverless technology and am among those just as eagerly awaiting real, demonstrable, and verifiable safety improvements that result from their application, I find myself, at this point, ensconced firmly on the side of the skeptics.

Despite the progress made thus far, which is significant and offers much potential, that potential has yet to fully bear out. Thus, sanctioning the removal of the human element is both premature and irresponsible.

Imagine you are in an AV with a loved one—say, your child—and you are suddenly rushing headlong into a situation that could be avoided had you the ability to take even momentary control of the vehicle. But you have no such option. There are no controls there for you to assume. The incident—the crash, the run-through red light, the pedestrian the vehicle’s system misinterprets or simply does not see, whatever—is now inevitable. And you both are going to have to deal with the consequences. (I nearly wrote “live with the consequences,” but who’s to say?)

There is no evidence that vehicles designed without manual controls are capable of functioning as promised on public roadways, and no case has been made showing this circumstance will be changing anytime soon. There is a time for daring and a time for caution; the wisest of us understand which is called for. 

About the Author

Budzynski is senior managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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