Back in fall 2014, the University of Iowa surveyed 2,015 people to see what they know about the technologies in their cars.
Fewer than half the people even recognized the tire pressure symbol from their dashboards, the one that automatically tells you whether your tires need some air.
And when asked whether their vehicles had ever “acted in a startling or unexpected manner,” given today’s array of sensors, alarms and cruise control options, 40 percent answered with a resounding “yes.”
On Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened its doors to outside safety groups, industry representatives and others as it seeks to craft “guidance” for vehicle makers and tech companies deploying automated technologies, and the state officials seeking to regulate them. Another public session will be held at Stanford University later this month.
Alex Epstein of the National Safety Council, an injury-prevention nonprofit, cited the Iowa study to warn Friday that regular old (and young) drivers are going to need more hand-holding than some might imagine on the road to a self-driving future.
Various safety features “were developed for the purposes of differentiation by marketers,” and have different brand names and varied capabilities, even within the same car-maker, Epstein said. There’s a potential for “false expectations among drivers,” he said. And given the baffling hodgepodge of icons and warning signals, he added, a focus on lower-tech aspects, such as driver education, will be key for achieving the “great promise” of the potentially life-saving technologies. One of his group’s first steps: an effort dubbed MyCarDoesWhat.org.
In January at the Detroit auto show, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx promised federal guidance on automated vehicles and a model state policy by mid-July.
The accelerated timeline reflects an on-the-ground reality: Companies are already selling cars that can guide themselves down highways and stay in, or change, lanes; that can take over in bumper-to-bumper conditions; or that can automatically apply the brakes in an emergency.
And they are already running self-driving cars (accompanied by human chaperons, who are supposed to be ready to take over) on roads in several cities.
“Everybody asks, when are they going to be ready? And I keep saying, they’re here now,” said NHTSA administrator Mark R. Rosekind, who has been a vocal advocate because of what he says is the potential to reduce deadly human errors behind the wheel.
But Rosekind said there’s a “huge gap” between the technologies themselves and the kind of thinking that should be accompanying their rollout.
“If we don’t fill that with – how are we going to do this safely? – then people are going to just keep putting stuff out there on the road, with no guidance,” he said.
The question that still needs answering, Rosekind added, is: “How are we going to do this the right way?”
But the right way is in the eye of the beholder.
Some outside safety advocates warned that things are moving way too fast, and that self-driving cars won’t really be truly safe for decades. Some industry executives, meanwhile, said they’ll be ready to roll with actual customers in four years.
Other advocates faulted safety officials for writing “guidance” at all, instead of immediately moving to craft tough regulations. Even some in industry said the predictability and comprehensiveness of the formal “rule making” process, which can take years, might have its advantages over the more streamlined process now underway.
Rosekind noted “the irony of having the automakers say, ‘regulate.’ I hope that’s not lost on anybody.” But he added the Obama administration’s interest in speed now does not foreclose the possibility of regulation later.
“We’re not giving anything up. We have enforcement and regulatory authorities we will use to their fullest extent…We can come up with a guidance document and still start a regulatory process,” Rosekind said.
The demands for what to include vary widely.
Parnell Diggs, director of government affairs for the National Federation of the Blind, told regulators Friday to insist that self-driving cars have a “non-visual interface” and other accessible features for the disabled. Netting real benefits will come down to a question of “imagination” and “our own ability to think about the kind of future we can have,” Diggs said.
James Niles, CEO of the startup Orbit City Lab, pointed to a darker potential future, citing the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion, following the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, that “the most important failure was one of imagination.” Niles said self-driving cars should be required to have “sensors to sniff out hazardous materials” and a mechanism to automatically shut down vehicles that might be used to make rolling weapons of mass destruction.
Rosekind said hacking and other threats need to be taken seriously.
But he pointed to the past as inspiration for moving forward. And he cited two numbers to make the case for speed.
In 2014, he said, 32,675 people died on U.S. roads. (While that number has fallen sharply since the 1970s, officials said the total for the first 9 months of 2015, the latest available, was up by nearly 10 percent.)
And Rosekind had another: 613,501.
“That’s the number of lives that have been saved because of vehicle safety advancement in the last 50 years,” Rosekind said, reflecting seat belts, air bags and more. “How many more lives can be saved? That is what we are most excited about.”