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The Toughest Question About Regulating Self-Driving Cars May Involve Data (Opinion)

The Department of Transportation wants autonomous car makers to share data with each other, with regulators, and with the public, but may be the department’s toughest challenge.

(TNS) -- The Obama administration has released its first set of regulatory guidance on self-driving cars, paving a way forward for this fledgling futuristic industry. The document itself is optimistic — full of talk about the “great potential” of autonomous cars. But it also points out important challenges for the public and for the carmakers.

The Department of Transportation’s report lists one of the biggest challenges early: data.

“The data generated from these activities should be shared in a way that allows government, industry, and the public to increase their learning and understanding as technology evolves but protects legitimate privacy and competitive interests,” says the Department of Transportation’s report.

To put it simply, the department wants autonomous carmakers to share data with each other, with regulators, and with the public about the testing process. That sounds nice, but it may be the department’s toughest challenge.

For autonomous carmakers, data is the key element that could differentiate them from their competitors. The software that runs autonomous vehicles learns from real-world driving data, getting “smarter” as it collects more and more. Autonomous carmakers will want to keep the data their fleets collect for themselves, recognizing that it could give them an edge in an emerging marketplace.

For example, after Tesla’s Model S had a tragic self-driving accident (the car slammed into a tractor trailer, killing the driver), Tesla upgraded its software so its other cars won’t make the same mistake. What Tesla did not do was share that data with other companies also developing autonomous cars.

It’s easy to understand the company’s logic. Why should it give its competitors information that would help them make their autonomous cars better? Sharing the data would be a boon for everyone’s road safety, but that’s not enough to convince a for-profit enterprise.

So this is an obvious area where the Department of Transportation may need to step in, and forcefully. The safety of the entire public is far more important than any one company’s profits. But it may be a tough fight, against heavy lobbying, for the department to win.

Another thing that’s interesting in the report is the 15-point safety assessment that the Department of Transportation is asking autonomous carmakers to prove before their vehicles take to the road.

Some of the points seem obvious — vehicles should be engineered to protect their software against hacking, for example, or vehicles should follow various state and local driving laws — but others, like the ethical considerations point, open a whole new window for public discussion.

Some of the ethical decisions that you, as a driver, may have never thought about will have to be programmed into an autonomous car’s capabilities and reported to federal regulators.

Such as: Should a car focus on protecting its driver in a crash, or the drivers in another car? Should a car be allowed to circumvent certain traffic rules? In the event of a crash, should a car focus on minimizing the number of people it hits — or minimizing hitting the most vulnerable person, like a baby?

These are enormous ethical decisions that should be discussed publicly — not left to unaccountable engineers in private companies.

And we haven’t even gotten into the consumer privacy concerns. They’re also on the 15-point list, with federal officials suggesting that consumers should be able to “opt out” of data collection on things like biometrics. We’d argue they should have to opt in.

The Department of Transportation is absolutely right that autonomous cars represent a great innovation with tremendous potential. But federal regulators will have to watch this industry carefully to make sure the public reaps the new technology’s benefits.

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.