Autonomous vehicles could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives over time — once they work well. But who decides when they are ready? Who gives them their licenses?
Electric robo-taxis hold great promise for solving the region’s urban transportation problems but not without the right public policies, including objective standards for vehicle safety. Sadly, no such policies were in place in Arizona on March 18 when an autonomous vehicle owned and operated by Uber struck and killed Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bicycle across the street at night.
An alert human driver or competent autonomous vehicle likely would have seen and avoided Herzberg. We must await completion of a full investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board before reaching final conclusions, but the tragedy creates new motivation to ensure fully autonomous, driverless taxis are safe before letting them roam our streets.
The companies developing self-driving technology tout safety as one of the main benefits. Automobiles killed more than 40,000 Americans last year, a horrible toll. Human fault and frailty caused 94 percent of those deaths, so any technology that could reduce this carnage is welcome. Autonomous vehicles could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives over time, once they work well. But who decides when they are ready? Who gives them their licenses? It shouldn’t be the companies developing them.
The auto industry has fought sensible safety standards for decades, opposing requirements for safety glass, seat belts, air bags and catalytic converters. Volkswagen committed a massive global fraud by falsifying tests of the emissions from its diesel cars. The auto industry is at it again, working Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back Obama-era clean car-standards. We can’t trust the industry to self-regulate.
Public safety requires public standards for risky new technologies. Despite the promise of breakthrough drugs, for example, we don’t allow pharmaceutical companies to use their own testing procedures and market a new product whenever they say it is ready. Instead, we require them to prove safety and efficacy to the Food and Drug Administration, through a multitiered approval process.
In all 50 states, to get a license to drive, a human must pass tests of vision, knowledge of traffic laws and skill behind the wheel. In Arizona, the robot that killed Herzberg just needed an OK from the very company that built it. One week after the accident, Arizona’s governor banned Uber from continued testing, but Waymo and Cruise robots continue to operate with no objective standard for vehicle safety.
The autonomous-vehicle industry has pushed for federal legislation that would nationalize Arizona’s “trust us” model. The AV START Act (S. 1885) would exempt from federal safety standards hundreds of thousands of robot vehicles to be sold over the next few years and would ban states from stepping in to improve vehicle safety.
For all the talk of wanting to make driving safer, the industry’s bill attracted heated opposition from a broad coalition of safety and consumer groups, appalled by the attempted end run on public oversight. After a similar bill passed the house, Senate Democrats tapped the brakes and have pushed a more balanced approach.
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Sensible rules are essential for road safety — to keep the race for market share from encouraging corner cutting, with more tragic consequences to humans. Besides, a reasonable certification process will help build confidence in robots as safe drivers, accelerating adoption once proven out. Domestic companies might even benefit disproportionately if the new standards keep out international competitors that lack a strong commitment to safety.
The omnibus spending bill approved on March 23 includes $100 million for automated-vehicle research and development by agencies, local governments and academic institutions. The industry needs to partner with leading experts at national labs and universities with access to this new funding to shape a performance-based approach to safety that reduces accidents while enabling continued innovation. A graduated certification model that builds on the principles for licensing human drivers would make a lot of sense.
Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an ill-advised executive order that allows autonomous-vehicle testing in Washington by companies that “self-certify.” The state gains little by allowing tech companies to test on public roads, and puts motorists and pedestrians unduly at risk. Instead, the governor and state legislators should focus on developing policies to enable the rapid scaling of autonomous electric fleets as soon as we know they work. Our region could benefit immensely from broadscale deployment of electric robo-taxis but not without public policy to ensure that they are safe.