THE OBAMA administration threw its weight — hard — behind driverless cars this week, earning praise from big players in an industry with the potential to transform American life. Disruptive technologies do not always get such reasonable treatment from federal regulators. But they must stay open-minded as the inevitable backlash to autonomous vehicle technology grows.
The Transportation Department on Monday released guidelines for automakers experimenting with autonomous vehicle technology, which can range from the semi-autonomous features that automatically check blind spots and keep people in their lanes to fully autonomous cars that lack steering wheels. For the moment, only semi-autonomous cars are on the market, and they have started to attract controversy. Most notably, a Florida man died after his Tesla “autopilot” feature failed to stop the car before it hit a truck. This was not necessarily the fault of the car but more likely of the expectations the driver had for a technology that was not supposed to be completely autonomous, yet was sold as an “autopilot” feature.
Though mechanical problems tend to get headlines, human error on the road is much more deadly. The country saw 35,000 road fatalities last year, nearly all of which were due to driver mistakes. The solution is more autonomous technology, relying on sensors that never get drunk or drowsy, communications equipment that does not need to glance into a mirror to figure out what is around it and software that allows cars to react much faster than humans can. Removing people from behind the wheel would have a range of other benefits that stem from fewer cars serving more people and driving with more care: Less traffic, less fuel waste, cheaper transportation, a reduced need for parking, huge amounts of time saved. Getting a driverless car service account, not a driver’s license, may soon be a key rite of passage for young adults.
Inevitably, a technological shift of this magnitude will attract opposition. People who drive for a living, workers in traditional auto manufacturing plants, auto parts suppliers, body shops, elements of the auto insurance industry — driverless technology may dramatically change the working lives of all of these and more. Even as society as a whole reaps massive benefits, some people will lose their jobs. As the country has recently seen with trade deals, such change can spawn extreme, counterproductive backlash.
The technology also faces a psychological barrier among people who feel safer when they have some measure of direct control of their vehicles. Even a relative few road injuries or deaths involving driverless cars will attract attention in early years, stoking fears that robot drivers are dangerous, regardless of what the overall numbers say.
It is crucial that regulators insist that autonomous vehicles are safe without strangling the very innovation that will make that happen. The Obama administration’s approach so far is a good one, laying out areas of concern and pressing carmakers to show, through real-world safety testing, that their technologies are sound — without mandating exactly which sensor package they must use or what the user interface should look like. Government officials should remain as reasonable as more political pressure mounts.