NACTO Supports the Google Self-Driving Car Philosophy

The National Association of City Transportation Officials' recent statement on automated driving reflects one tech giant's sentiments that driving is better left to machines.

by / July 11, 2016
(AP/Tony Avelar)

When the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) spoke up about automated driving in June, it wasn’t just laying out best practices — it was also supporting one side in the countrywide debate over how much control automated vehicles should have.

And its stance aligns with the Google philosophy, which happens to be somewhat opposed to the California Department of Motor Vehicles' philosophy. NACTO’s policy statement included a stance that it’s dangerous to ask humans to stay ready to take over driving after the car has been driving itself.

“Going halfway with partially automated vehicles, instead of fully automated, would require drivers to take over if the vehicle encounters a dangerous situation,” a NACTO press release reads. “In practice, such vehicles have been shown to encourage unsafe driving behavior, with drivers reading more, texting more and generally being inattentive while the vehicle is in motion.”

That aligns closely with statements that Google’s self-driving car project members have put out in the past.

“People trust technology very quickly once they see it works,” an October 2015 report from the Google self-driving car project reads. “As a result, it’s difficult for them to dip in and out of the task of driving when they are encouraged to switch off and relax.”

Meanwhile, the California DMV is proposing regulations that would require cars to have a steering wheel, drivers to have a license and the vehicle’s software to hand control to humans under a variety of circumstances. Google representatives have criticized the proposal, prompting the state’s lieutenant governor to agree with Google and the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog to support the DMV.

The debate has turned into something of a philosophical schism in the national conversation about automated driving — since most driving right now isn’t automated, how should society transition to a new status quo where most or all driving is automated?

A new entry into that discussion also kicked up recently when Tesla Motors announced the first confirmed fatal accident while one of its cars was driving in Autopilot mode. The mode is semi-automated, meaning the car will perform most of the functions of driving without a human’s direct control, but Tesla has maintained that drivers should stay ready to take over while the car is in Autopilot mode.

The NACTO policy statement included several other guiding philosophies for city transportation officials who are preparing for a future where vehicles drive humans instead of the opposite. Among the organization’s other stances were:

  • Safety, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, should be the No. 1 priority of systems that take automated driving into account.
  • Automated vehicles (AVs) shouldn’t drive faster than 25 miles per hour in complex urban driving environments.
  • Transportation planners should consider future infrastructure projects more carefully. This is because many people studying AVs have theorized that automated driving will make infrastructure — roads, bridges, intersections, etc. — more efficient, so that expensive expansions might not be as necessary in the future.
  • City officials should plan for “robust” collection of transportation data, and that data should be open.
  • All levels of government should work together on planning for automated driving.
  • Planning should take into account the reduced opportunity costs implied in the concept of self-driving cars. That is, the task of driving imposes a “cost” on drivers in the sense that time spent behind the wheel is time that person cannot use for any other purpose. So freeing up a person to do other things while their vehicle drives itself means that time spent in transit will become more valuable.
  • Government needs to think about alternative revenue sources for funding its transportation work. Much of that revenue currently comes from fuel taxes and vehicle registration, but self-driving cars might allow people to share the ownership of vehicles, changing the landscape for registration fees. Meanwhile, vehicles are also becoming more electrified, meaning that they don’t use fuel that can be taxed. States such as California and Oregon are in the process of testing road use charge systems where people pay based on how much they drive rather than how much fuel they buy.