How the Government is Getting Innovation Right with Autonomous Vehicles

Oct 7, 2016

We’re all impressed with the idea of self-driving cars and how great it would be to read the paper on the way to work instead of getting a foot cramp from riding the brake in traffic, but, according to a new poll released by Kelley Blue Book in September, we’re still not ready. 

Sixty-four percent of people said they think roadways would be safer if autonomous vehicles were standard, but 51 percent of respondents said they wanted to stay in the driver seat no matter what the cost.
We’re basically torn between the promise of better safety and our need for control.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released guidelines for autonomous vehicles in late September and last week in Washington D.C. I attended a private briefing on them with NHTSA Administrator, Mark Rosekind. You can read the entire 116 pages of guidelines, but let me break down a few interesting facts for you:

Autonomous Cars Aren’t the Problem, We Are

Humans are basically the wrench in any system, especially with cars. I bet fifty years from now our grandchildren will wonder why people were ever allowed to drive. 
Think about it – you’ve got heavy machinery moving at high speeds, there’s no way to MAKE people to pay attention or drive safely, and adding pedestrians or mind altering substances, well it’s just a recipe for disaster. 

Last year alone, 38,300 people were killed and 4.4 million injured on U.S. roads according to the National Safety Council. Ninety-four percent of car crashes are because of human error and most crashes with autonomous cars are our fault as well

As if preventing thousands of deaths a year wasn’t a good enough reason to embrace autonomous vehicles, here are a few additional, let’s say, “bonuses” to taking ourselves out of the driving equation:
•    Reduced costs for healthcare – less crashes, less injuries, less visits to the ER, less ambulances, and on and on.
•    More efficient use of roadways, less traffic, AND greatly reduce carbon emissions – driverless cars are simply more efficient – they use fuel more efficiently and there would be less need for road repairs. 
•    Increase in available urban space – A study in the UK showed that shared autonomous vehicles could increase available urban space by 15 to 20 percent, largely through the elimination of parking spaces.

Our Government is Ahead of the Technology Curve 

So often we see government regulation lagging behind innovation technology. There’s fear, red tape, hesitancy, but in the case of autonomous cars, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is right in the mix. 

With innovation, it’s often that industry drives policy and that’s still the case here. We’re moving quickly because of innovators like Tesla, Google, Uber, and even Ford. These entrepreneurs pushed the government to think about the benefits of autonomous vehicles and our government responded wisely and efficiently.

Levels of Autonomy Matter

Autonomy isn’t an all or nothing prospect, there’s plenty of in between. Autonomous cars are actually ranked on a scale from 0, complete human control, to 5, full machine autonomy. 
Most of the cars we have on the roads today are ones. We’re still in the very early stages of autonomous vehicles and the ‘tipping point’ of transitioning is level 3, where drivers are still necessary, but not required. 

Based on what I’ve seen and the discussion in the briefing, we’re about to see level two be overtaken by level three pretty quickly.

Challenges exist, and the greatest ones seem to be around systems integration and roadways. But with the entrepreneurs we have on the case and federal regulations backing them up, I know we’ll get there. 

Autonomous cars are here, they are integrating faster than we all expected, and they will have a positive impact. Kudos to the DOT for getting ahead of the technology curve. So save your driver’s license, you may need to prove to your kids that people were, once up on a time, legally allowed to drive.