New Legislation Increases Discussions About Consumer Safety In Regards to Self-Driving Cars

self-driving cars
New Technologies Bring Opportunity And Concerns

Do you remember the first iPhone? What were your thoughts the first time you sat down to use the Internet on a personal computer? Each generation experiences groundbreaking advancements in technology. From the television to virtual reality headsets, each brings with it new possibilities and concerns. Both of which involve serious questions about commerce and regulation. While the questions may be different for each new trend of technology, they all share humble and uncertain beginnings. The autonomous vehicle is no different. S. Tsugawa built the first truly autonomous car in 1977 at Japan’s Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory. It was the first automobile to process images of the road in front of it. Fast-forward to 2017, and Google’s autonomous fleet of Toyota Prius cars have traveled over 140,000 miles with the help of Google’s street view cameras.

What was once a far-off thought from the future has turned into a reality. Auto manufacturers such as Bosch, Audi, Ford, Toyota, and Chevrolet all have patents related to autonomous driving. In fact, Bosch has the most at just shy of 1,000 between July 2010 and July 2017. However, one name has seemingly dominated the airwaves when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Tesla’s Model 3 is the first mass-market vehicle with the capabilities for self-driving. Their direct-to-consumer model and the fact that they collect vast amounts of data to continue to update their technologies makes them one of the first major players in the consumer market for self-driving cars. Their advancements in this space were intensely questioned this year when an owner of their Model S was the first person killed in a self-driving car accident after a tractor-trailer crossed into the car’s lane, crashing into the vehicle. The driver was not paying attention, and the Autopilot self-driving system did not recognize the truck. The National Transportation Safety Board declared Tesla was responsible for not figuring in human error into their Autopilot self-driving system. With the recent passing of a house legislation bill to expand the use of self-driving cars in the United States, it is worth examining the pros and cons of this technology in the space of automobile safety and commerce.

The SELF-DRIVE Act of 2017: Accessibility Vs. Safety

On September 6, 2017, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the SELF-DRIVE Act of 2017. It allows autonomous vehicle manufacturers to be exempt from certain safety regulations for 25,000 vehicles in the first year, and up to 100,000 in the next four. They will have to meet safety requirements made by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but there are real concerns about the lack of clarity about the regulations manufacturers have to follow. The argument concerning this legislation comes down to two ideas: accessibility and safety. According to Tasha Keeny, an analyst at ARK Invest an investment management company specializing in innovative technologies, autonomous taxis could add over $2 trillion to U.S. GDP by 2035 and self-driving vehicles could save over 140,000 lives in the U.S. by the same year. Automakers like Ford, General Motors, and Waymo support the bill’s stance as a way to continue to help their businesses innovate and move into the future.

Unintended Impacts Of The Bill

However, there are just as many voices on the other side that are speaking against the bill, many of them concerning the issue of safety. Experts are concerned that allowing exemptions could create weaker safety standards for features like brakes and steering wheels. This could become more of an issue since state governments are not authorized to create laws related to the design and operation of the cars. Another group heavily impacted by this bill are labor unions. The increase of autonomous technology could extend to trucks, with the unintended effect of putting millions out of work. Still, the story of Joshua Brown, the first person killed in a self-driving car looms large over the discussion.

Can Self-Driving Cars Protect Against Human Error?

How do you design a system that is intelligent enough to take human error into account? How do you accurately educate consumers on features they may have never seen before on their cars? One consensus is that the government might need to play a more active role in regulating the capabilities of this new technology. The legislation passed last week shows that they may be taking a more hands-off approach. Therefore, the role of dealers may change from sales and operations to include even more teaching and training. It is evident that a third party will need to be involved in keeping consumers informed of where autonomous technology ends, and their attention to their own human error needs to begin.