Autonomous vehicles offer the potential for making streets safer, but currently face regulatory and safety challenges of their own.
Autonomous vehicles and drones have almost fully proven their potential value in various military uses, first in detailed simulated environments and more recently in real-world tests. They are even able to operate in swarms now, using sophisticated artificial intelligence to not only avoid running into each other, but to share workloads and quickly complete complex tasks.
But they are still a long way to becoming commonplace on residential and city streets. A lot of that is because if a drone messes up on the battlefield, there is little chance that any friendly troops will be injured. They are normally operating far from people, or even in contested territory held by an enemy. But if a self-driving car blows through a stoplight or veers off onto the sidewalk of a crowded city street, the results could be tragic, not just for its passengers, but also for everyone around it. So those of us who dream of being driven to work by our vehicles every morning, or having them scoot us back home in the evening while we nap, will have to wait a bit longer for that to happen.
Ironically, the potential for autonomous vehicles to make streets safer was cited as a key reason why The House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Infrastructure held a hearing last week on the use of automated vehicles. Entitled “The Road Ahead for Automated Vehicles,” the hearing featured testimony from state and local officials, industry representatives and safety organizations.
The hearing comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report with some sobering statistics about a spike in serious accidents across the country. According to the report, there were 31,720 vehicle fatalities in the first nine months of 2021, which was 12% more than in 2020 and the highest number of deaths on the road since 2006. Autonomous vehicles operating safely could drastically cut those numbers, although most committee members seemed skeptical that the technology was anywhere near being ready for mass deployment.
“We have seen disastrous consequences when automation technology is deployed haphazardly,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, chair of the subcommittee. “To maximize the road safety impact of AVs, we must ensure that these technologies are held to the highest possible safety standards.”
Norton may have been referring to a slew of bad news for the autonomous vehicle industry over the past couple weeks. First we got word that Tesla was recalling over 50,000 vehicles for running stop signs. But that followed news from one of Tesla’s primary beta testers, a man named Taylor Ogan, who shared footage of his Tesla on Twitter narrowly missing a delivery truck and almost veering into a roadside barrier while trying to navigate a series of busy streets. And finally, there were also reports of hundreds of incidents where autonomous vehicles were traveling at high speeds and then suddenly applied their brakes for no apparent reason. So it’s been a relatively bad time for testing autonomous vehicles.
Ariel Wolf, general counsel for the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, which represents Ford, Waymo, Lyft, Volvo, Uber and others, stressed that autonomous vehicles have the potential to make roadways much safer compared with having all human drivers. He also said that once autonomous vehicles were commonplace, that the average household could save an average of $5,600 per year on transportation costs. However, his vision requires that those households rely on shared fleets of autonomous vehicles, which may not be realistic in car-loving America.
Interestingly, most of the speakers agreed that one of the biggest drawbacks to autonomous vehicle deployment was a lack of federal regulations to govern the safety and legality of operating self-driving cars. Instead, vehicles must comply with state laws, so it’s quite possible that a self-driving vehicle operating in one state could suddenly become illegal when it crosses into another.
Iowa Department of Transportation Director Scott Marler, speaking on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, explained why the federal government needed to set unified policies that both states and industry could follow.
“It is vitally important that the federal government and specifically the USDOT [United States Department of Transportation] continue to join in supporting these national, regional, state and local efforts,” Marler said. “The federal government and the USDOT are uniquely positioned to facilitate and sustain a technically informed and objective collaboration effort. Federal leadership can ensure national consistency in systems engineering and architecture to guarantee interoperability and standardized levels of safety across state lines.”
If a national strategy governing the laws and regulations for autonomous vehicles could be hashed out, then speakers said that many of the local success stories regarding smart cars and delivery vehicles could start to spread across the country. One such story was shared by Martha Castex-Tatum, vice mayor pro tem and council member for District K in Houston, Texas.
In Houston, they have been using smaller autonomous and electric vehicles designed by Nuro, a company founded in 2016 that focuses on delivery vehicles and self-driving robots. Castex-Tatum said that the vehicles were a double win for her city because they can be operated safely using automation, and eliminate the need for more gas-powered vehicles on city streets.
“Houston is one of the first cities to see AVs conducting commercial delivery service, with the deployment of Nuro’s zero-occupant, electric AVs, and I am glad that my own District K was one of the first three zip codes where service launched,” Castex-Tatum said. “These vehicles are offering our residents more zero-emission options with lower speeds and smaller, lightweight vehicles. Since 2019, Nuro has delivered groceries, prescriptions and hot food in partnership with Kroger’s, Domino’s, CVS and the Houston Food Bank.”
The hearing, and especially the latest roadside fatality statistics, really hit home for me. Back when I had to make a long commute to work, I unfortunately got to see a lot of bad accidents involving tractor trailers, passenger vans, motorcycles, cars, buses and everything else. I narrowly missed out on becoming entangled in a major pile up on the American Legion Bridge that unfolded at full highway speeds about two car lengths behind me—and provided quite the early morning scare. I also escaped several minor near misses where drivers were not paying attention when changing lanes, or were too distracted to notice that traffic ahead of them (where I was sitting) had slowed to a stop.
Back when I was just starting out as a journalist, racing to the scene of bad and fatal accidents to collect information and take photos was part of my beat. Those accident photos were oddly popular and often landed on the front page, but it was a soul draining assignment. So yes, I have seen the danger that human error can cause when driving, which is why I have no reason to doubt the latest NHTSA statistics. I look forward to the day when people can have their vehicles safely take them wherever they need to go. I have no illusions that something like that will happen anytime soon, but if unified federal laws and guidance can speed up the process, then it’s something that we should all support.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys