By Michael R. Lemov, Guest Blogger
On Sept. 20, the Department of Transportation issued its long awaited “guidelines” for the development and sale of driverless cars. The department attempted to balance its guidance between ensuring public safety and promoting the speedy development of driverless cars for use on our roadways. For all its fanfare, DOT’s guidance failed to achieve its primary mission of ensuring safety.
DOT and its delegate agency NHTSA did not issue any new enforceable safety regulations for driverless vehicles. It did not propose any premarketing standards or requirements for automated cars, except to say it will shortly ask all producers of driverless cars to answer a comprehensive questionnaire about their proposed designs and test methods. Absent was any commitment by the federal government to actually regulate the new cars before they are sold to the public for use on public roads. The omission is discouraging and could prove dangerous, particularly in view of the current record of partially automated vehicles getting into accidents, some deadly.
The department did warn producers that the current penalties for not reporting a safety-related defect publicly would apply to the automated cars, despite the weakness of the current penalties and the agency’s failure to force reporting of past lethal automotive dangers, such as Toyota’s sudden acceleration, General Motors’s ignition shut off problem, and Takata’s exploding airbags. In all these cases, and many more, the lack of adequate federal civil and any criminal sanctions apparently induced manufacturers to gamble on not reporting the accidents, even while people were being injured and killed.
Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, made a more significant contribution to the current debate. He recently called on the automobile industry, the government, and public institutions to address the “ethical issues emerging in a world where driverless cars will make life and death decisions in roadway crashes.” Such issues, according to Mr. Ford, include situations in which a self-driving car must choose between the lesser of two evils. As Mr. Ford noted, we urgently need a national discussion of the ethics of the new technology.
The history of the development of the automobile and its safety regulation in the United States establishes that technological advances need both ethical and basic safety regulation before, not after, they go on the market, as well as an enforceable federal watchdog with teeth. The airbag would never have been required on all U.S. cars if the auto industry had its way. Stronger car roofs, to resist death and injury in rollover crashes, faced decades of auto industry opposition. Seat belts were not mandated in American automobiles until 1968, although their life-saving potential had been known to automotive engineers since at least the 1920s. So it is, or should be, with the emerging automated vehicle technology. We can and should have both ethical automobile technology and life-saving mandated safety regulations. But that will only happen if we avoid getting dazzled by the new technology and demand mandated rules for safe development and use from our lawmakers and the Department of Transportation.
Michael R. Lemov is the author of Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics, and Death, published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and former counsel to the House Commerce Committee. An earlier version of this post appeared online on The Hill (thehill.com).