To protect public safety while allowing this sector to develop, policymakers will need to look out beyond where the technology is today.
Autonomous vehicle technology progressing rather rapidly. So much so, in fact, that until the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced its new AV policy, technology development was outpacing regulatory requirements.
Now, however, the technology and the regulations seem to be more or less parallel in terms of development. But it’s important to take a closer look at this technology and the regulatory environment in which it will evolve, because before we know it, Ford, Google, Tesla and Uber will be putting more autonomous cars on the road in more and more places. So to protect public safety while allowing this sector to develop, policymakers will need to look out beyond where the technology is today.
Leading up to the recent DOT ruling, automakers said they wished to avoid “a patchwork of state laws” here in the U.S. This goal seems to have been sufficiently achieved, as the DOT policy essentially says that the state rules of the road will apply while a human is driving, but when the computer takes over, so does federal policy. The primary reason for this is safety: Just as we have one federal standard for lifesaving features like airbags and seatbelts, we’ll have a uniform federal standard for autonomous vehicle safety.
A Worldwide Issue
The reduction of annual traffic-related deaths is a worldwide public issue. In certain countries, the frequency of human-driven vehicle accidents is much higher than in the U.S. There are twice as many traffic fatalities per 100,000 people in Russia as in the U.S., according to The World Health Organization, and three times as many in Saudi Arabia as compared to the U.S.
The DOT policy is, first and foremost, focused on safety — and with good reason. Indeed, one of the biggest promises of autonomous vehicle technology is its potential to dramatically reduce the number of vehicle-related accidents and fatalities. Safety should absolutely be the chief concern of federal regulatory bodies.
The policy also is focused on addressing questions like, “What happens if a crash happens?” and, “How do we piece together the different data points after the fact and try to figure out why the crash happened?” Or if there was a near-miss scenario, how will we utilize the data from that near-miss scenario to make sure that the collision threat doesn’t happen again? In addition to data recording — sharing this data for real-time driving situations — safety regulations are vitally important.
DOT officials are thinking very hard about this, and they're thinking from a different point of view than the technology industry is. While the tech industry has been thinking about safety, their initial focus was on technical safety issues — issues like which sensor is the best to handle a particular use case, and will LIDAR, RADAR or an optical sensor be the best way to detect a particular object? Government has been looking at arguably less technical — but equally important — issues.
Of particular importance is the fact that the tech industry will be looking at and contributing data on a variety of uses and scenarios, as well as expressing opinions and sharing what is learned with government — a necessary and significant collaboration.
Overall, this DOT policy is definitely a step in the right direction. In order for the autonomous driving sector to become a safe and widespread reality, there are a few more things to consider on a continual basis as this technology evolves.
Serhad Doken is the vice president of partner devleopment for InterDigital.