Representatives from several major automakers and technology companies descended on Congress this week to ask the U.S. Government to act faster to remove barriers that they believe are holding back the development of self-driving cars. In early 2016, GM invested in Lyft, and the two companies formed a partnership to develop on demand, ride-sharing cars. Both companies, along with Google, outlined their preferred regulatory scheme for Congress on Tuesday, urging the government to establish more self-driving-friendly regulations.
However, not everyone is on board with the fast-tracked development of autonomous driving. Mary Cummings, a robotics and human interaction expert at Duke University, also testified before Congress. She told US lawmakers that automakers were rushing the self-driving tech through testing and to market before the tech could be appropriately validated.
Google made headlines in early 2016 for testing 1 million miles in its prototypical vehicle with only a few accidents. Cummings praised the 1 million miles of testing, but cited a Rand Corporation study that indicated 275 million miles of testing was required before verifying that autonomous driving technology was safe for American drivers. Cummings agreed with automakers that there needed to be accelerated testing, but was concerned that most testing takes place in places like California and South Texas, states where weather conditions are more mild and predictable than other climates.
GM, Google and Lyft countered that letting states develop a regulatory patchwork that differed state by state was an even more risky proposition. They are advocating for development of a national standard that would give all automakers guidance on how they can develop their new technologies.
Meanwhile, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, also called on Congress to seriously consider privacy and security of consumers, since these cars will have active internet connections and extensive tracking capabilities. Mercedes-Benz recently rolled out the most autonomous car ever created, the E300, which has the ability to transmit information about a car’s position, traffic, obstacles and other information directly to the cloud. Although the intent is for these features to help drivers navigate traffic in a safe and effective manner, there are abundant privacy and security concerns anytime a car can send – and receive – commands from a third-party.
Should automakers hit the brakes on the fast development of autonomous cars? Although the cars have the theoretical ability to help drivers avoid accidents, control traffic and maneuver in tight conditions, one only need to look at the facts underlying Google’s recent accident report in California to discover the folly of relying too much on this technology before it is tested. The Google self-driving car struck a bus after the car attempted to avoid some sandbags. Google accepted partial responsibility for the accident, noting that its car believed the bus would slow down to accommodate the car.
A Google spokesperson said “From now on, our cars will more deeply understand that buses (and other large vehicles) are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles.”
These kind of variables, which result from human factors as well as experiences and tendencies that could be described as “rules of the road,” will obviously take extensive testing – and time – before being smoothly and safely integrated into self-driving cars. If automakers can skirt the process, the potential for accidents caused by in miscommunication and programming problems could be catastrophic.
Moreover, consumers are not as enthusiastic about self-driving cars as automakers and tech companies. Even those who see the benefits are leery of giving up control. The same consumers who have been trained since birth to make turning 16 a right of passage, invest in automobiles rather than mass transit, and savor the open road will not go quietly into the autonomous driving good night.
No one is suggesting that automakers halt the development of autonomous cars. There are already exciting new features that could change the face of driving for the better. However, the promise of self-driving tech should be balanced by the need for appropriate safety regulations, especially since not all American drivers will be replacing their cars with brand new, autonomous cars at the same time. The best result may just be a hybrid approach that establishes national standards for autonomous driving but still requires rigorous testing before these new features go live.