Last updated July 6, 2018 at 11:34 am
The US pro-business approach to autonomous cars risks losing public confidence – and lives.
Manufacturers of autonomous vehicles (AVs) must be subject to stronger regulations to avoid widespread public rejection of the technology, US road safety researchers write in the journal Science.
Joan Claybrook, former head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and Shaun Kildare of public interest coalition Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety say that once the tech is fully matured, AVs have the potential to dramatically reduce road trauma.
However, they add, recent fatal accidents show that “sensors and algorithms of AVs are still having trouble identifying road hazards and potential obstacles reasonably expected to be in the driving path”.
Such accidents – the January 2018 collision between a Tesla Model S in “Autopilot” mode and a parked fire truck, for instance, or the March 2018 autonomous Uber malfunction which killed a pedestrian – attract widespread media attention and damage public confidence.
The authors cite an opinion poll commissioned in January by Kildare’s organisation, which found that 64 per cent of respondents expressed concerns about sharing the road with autonomous vehicles.
Only 37 per cent support in Australian poll
The results are echoed in an Australian opinion poll, published this week that found 23 per cent of people hold negative views about AVs, and a further 40 per cent hold “neutral” ones, leaving only 37 per cent in support.
In the US, autonomous vehicles fall under the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which was designed to ensure vehicle performance standards did not put the public at unreasonable risk of death and injury.
Claybrook and Kildare identify several “regulatory gaps” in current governance, which they say mean that minimum standards for safe AV testing are not being met.
In particular, they say that there are no third-party studies under way to determine how AVs perform in a range of weather conditions, including investigations into how and why different sensors foul and fail.
In addition, test model AVs are not subjected to a minimum vision test that ensures a vehicle’s navigation system “can properly identify its surroundings, including other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, road markings, and traffic signs, and respond appropriately”.
The researchers note that there is no regulatory requirement for “comprehensive testing and development” before vehicles are trialled on public roads.
Legislation set to be overridden
And the situation, they say, is only set to worsen in the US. A raft of county- and state-level legislation designed to force AV manufacturers to adhere to higher safety standards look set to be overridden by new federal bills currently before Congress.
The federal legislation is designed to subjugate safety regulations if they are deemed to impact negatively on corporate development. And while that might benefit manufacturers in the short-term, the authors say, it will likely kill the entire industry over time.
“Congress must end the deregulatory efforts and focus on balancing productive competition while maintaining the levels of safety required by established law and practice,” they conclude.
“A failure to put proper safeguards in place will result in the continued erosion of the public confidence in this potentially lifesaving and game-changing technology.”