Joan Claybrook is a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Jacqueline S. Gillan is president emeritus of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced last year that the District would be the corporate testing ground for Ford’s driverless vehicles. Throughout our careers in highway and auto safety, we have strongly and successfully advocated for the adoption of proven vehicle safety technologies such as air bags, rollover prevention systems and, more recently, rearview cameras that have collectively saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented millions of injuries. We do not fear new technology, but we do fear being guinea pigs for testing vehicles equipped with experimental technology and exempted, as current law allows, from existing safety requirements on crowded city streets.
The transportation environment in the District presents many significant and unique challenges for driverless vehicles. While it has been reported that an engineer will be behind the wheel of these test vehicles, a human driver as a safeguard has been ineffective. In March, a pedestrian was killed in Arizona even though the self-driving Uber car that hit her had a human driver. There are no minimum training standards for these testers, so all road users are at the mercy of Ford adequately preparing them for numerous hazardous scenarios. Additionally, the increase in the number of pedestrians, bicycles and scooters sharing our streets increases the likelihood that driverless vehicles could collide with vulnerable road users.
Numerous public opinion polls show that people are skeptical of driverless cars — and for good reason. Already there have been serious crashes involving automated driving technologies that have failed and caused deaths and injuries. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board has at least four investigations into several of these incidents.
Moreover, major and costly infrastructure problems — including street disrepair, deep potholes, faded pavement markings and abrupt road closures for motorcades and public protests — could make it difficult for driverless vehicles to safely navigate our city. No amount of pre-mapping will be able to address these sudden changes. Recent research shows that driverless vehicles can easily err and be confused by such situations. For example, in one experiment a standard stop sign with only a few alterations was interpreted by a driverless vehicle as a 45 mph speed limit sign. The possible consequences are frightening. We must appreciably invest in upgrading our infrastructure before we invite driverless vehicles onto our streets.
Despite claims that this technology will unclog our congested roads, transportation experts have found that the proliferation of mobility services such as Lyft and Uber (precursors for mass deployment of driverless vehicles) instead have increased congestion and reduced mass-transit use. Additionally, our nation’s capital is a potential target for terrorists who could hack the control systems of these vehicles and use them as weapons. We should not sacrifice public safety for an auto industry experiment. Mandating cybersecurity protection is an essential prerequisite.
There is an urgent need for a scientific protocol and independent oversight of operations to ensure that all participants are protected — those inside the vehicle and the unwitting public outside. Bowser should establish an expert institutional review board, a common practice for experiments involving human subjects. Before the program commences, the board should evaluate the proposal, suggest improvements and recommend its termination if there is any threat to safety.
To guarantee the project meets the needs of D.C. residents, all neighborhoods where these vehicles will operate should have a voice, as should public health and safety groups, first responders, doctors and nurses, small-business owners, and bicycle, pedestrian and disability rights advocates. Additionally, any crashes or other safety critical incidents involving these vehicles must immediately be reported and investigated by authorities. The public has a right to assess this experiment, and city leaders and Ford have an obligation to make all data publicly available. The auto industry should not be allowed to write the rules of the road for such a risky project affecting public safety.
We urge Bowser to heed the warning of Ford chief executive Bill Ford Jr.: “There’s been a lot of overpromising and I think a lot of misinformation that’s been out there. It’s really important that we get it right, rather than get it quickly.”
His statement raises the question: What’s the rush with so much at stake?