Re-evaluating Self-Driving Car Guidance and a Need for a Conversation

March 3, 2017

This past Sunday, Elaine Chao, the new US Transportation Secretary announced that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the USDOT would be re-evaluating the self-driving vehicle guidance penned under the Obama administration. It is not quite clear what exactly that will entail, but Secretary Chao stated her agency intends to “ensure that [the guidance] strikes the right balance.”
For those interested in some light reading, the current guidance is over 100 pages long. The TLDR version (too long, didn’t read) is that the developers of self-driving vehicles have to provide the NHTSA safety assessments addressing 15 different safety evaluations. These evaluations include things such as security measures against unauthorized uses of data and documentation of vehicle performance. Additionally, the guidance addresses the federal and state level responsibilities for regulatory actions.
Manufacturers were largely against the guidance, arguing that the guidance would require them to turn over important data and delay testing, among other concerns. Because of their concerns, Secretary Chao has charged the manufacturers with doing their part to educate the public on the benefits and safety of self-driving cars and automated technology.
Unlike other recent cabinet picks, Secretary Chao publicly acknowledged the benefit of science and technology, noting automated vehicles could dramatically improve safety. But she is cautious: “There’s a lot at stake in getting this technology right.” That caution is not unfounded either. In February 2016, a Google self-driving car inaccurately predicted the behavior of a bus, creating a collision. A crash in May 2016 involving a self-driving Tesla resulted in the death of its driver. While it was ruled not the fault of the car, it shows that the systems are complex and their capabilities and limitations are not fully understood by the public.

While there is valid concern in speedily introducing self-driving cars because of the complexity of the technology, it should be noted that Secretary Chao may be hesitant to rubber stamp decisions that truly benefit the technology because of campaign promises and lobbyists.

The trucking and rail industries have largely supported the Trump administration. Additionally, the administration promised to bring back jobs and keep jobs. Secretary Chao expressed concern regarding the impact of self-driving technology on the transportation labor force. It is a possibility that this technology could result in heavy cuts in the job market for transportation, particularly in the trucking industry. It is hard to say exactly how, when, or to what extent that loss of jobs will be. But how much of her comment is genuine concern for jobs (because let’s face it, automation of many work forces is on its way) and how much of it is saving face for the administration in front of a nation that has given Trump the lowest presidential approval rating in the country’s history.
There is a lot to consider for this re-evaluation. If there is deregulation in favor of the manufacturers, there should at least be increased transparency from the manufacturers, as well as accountability for both the success of the technology and proper education of the public on the technology’s limitations. If regulations remain, it shouldn’t be simply because the lobbyists are flexing too much green muscle. There needs to be open and thorough discussion between the administration, the manufacturers, and the public. Given the administration’s current track record for speaking with the public, however, that seems unlikely to happen.