New Driverless Car Rules Will Stifle Innovation, Cost Lives
Three numbers: 35,200 people were killed in auto accidents last year; 94 percent of car crashes are due to human error; 613,501 lives have been saved by advances in auto safety over the past 50 years. These numbers form the basis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head’s argument for autonomous vehicles and a friendly regulatory environment.
Ironically, though, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is also considering premarket approval and post-sale regulations that would restrict the development and improvement of autonomous vehicles even more than “dumb” vehicles, potentially leading to the unnecessary loss of life.
In a speech on Monday at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said that his agency’s goal is to create “a framework that will speed the development and deployment of technologies with significant lifesaving potential.” However, the very next day, his agency released the long-promised NHTSA guidelines for autonomous vehicles, proposing two new authorities that would do the exact opposite. These new authorities are only options, and the NHTSA is seeking public comment.
The first proposal, the “Considered New Authority” of premarket approval, would require manufacturers to have their models approved before hitting showrooms for sale — a departure from the current process of self-certification. A premarket approval process, the guidelines say, would help the public accept autonomous vehicles. However, this is a long-term solution to a short-term problem; and this new authority not only goes against Rosekind’s own expressed approach but also the way automobiles are made.
“If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting for a very, very long time,” Rosekind said of autonomous vehicle technology in general. “How many lives might we be losing while we wait?”
The problem is that approving every single model for every single manufacturer would be a monumental task — and a slow one. Do we really want an FDA-style premarket approval process when delays could cost lives? (Look what’s happened with EpiPens.)
Moreover, models don’t just change every 12 months. Toyota makes thousands of improvements to its manufacturing processes every year, and manufacturers regularly tweak and improve their models. Even the parts, themselves, come from thousands of suppliers, each of which should be free to improve. Given that autonomous vehicles rely on software, manufacturers need the capability to implement change swiftly up to the moment of release.
The NHTSA is also considering establishing an authority to regulate post-sale software updates and is even considering “new measures and tools” such as prerelease simulation. At the moment, companies like Tesla can send software updates through the airwaves — which it did a week ago, making over two hundred enhancements of varying importance. Rosekind saw this as a positive development since it means that safety can be continuously improved.
However, the need for up-to-the-minute updates not only illustrates why a premarket approval process for software would be unsound, but calls into question the wisdom of heavily regulating post-sale software enhancements. If the NHTSA decides to regulate post-sale updates, their regulations should come in the form of self-certifications and post-release assessments. A pre-release approval process for security updates makes no sense.
Rosekind was right when he said, “technology is changing so rapidly that any rule we write today would likely be woefully irrelevant by the time it took effect years later.” Let’s just hope that the actual regulations will reflect this reality.
If not, the NHTSA could undermine its own mission, and the highway death toll will remain at its current high levels.
Grant Broadhurst’s work has appeared in The American Spectator and Watchdog News. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of North Florida and is a Young Voices Advocate. Find him on Twitter: @GWBroadhurst