There's no high IQ exemption to qualify for driving privileges in the United States. No "you can believe me" clause, either. Yet that's what seems to be expected by some makers of smart cars that operate with varying degrees of autonomy. We need a much more collaborative relationship between government and business to safely provide Intelligent Transportation technologies in cars and trucks. The people who maintain roads and those who make vehicles need to work together better so that we can provide the public with greater safety, cleaner air, and less traffic congestion, as soon as possible.
The current relationships between government and business in surface transportation have not satisfied either group. Some companies feel that regulators stifle their ability to innovate by enforcing rules written a generation ago that are no longer relevant. Government sometimes has little notice when business makes available new technologies and government doesn’t get the opportunity to perform their oversight. The number of these issues has grown with the increased use of digital technologies. Vehicle manufacturers are working with some states to test their smart vehicles on public roads. Information about those relationships and tests have not been made publicly available nor are the standards applied to allow the testing.
Tesla’s action publicly demonstrates that cars are fast becoming the independent thinking machines envisioned by science fiction writers, especially Isaac Asimov in his anthology of short stories I, Robot originally published in 1950. Even 65 years ago Asimov realized that autonomous machines would need to operate according to common, transparent rules that safeguard people.
More collaboration between government and business could help create the open standards and common business rules needed to protect the public and support a thriving marketplace. Business should release autonomous systems and other kinds of Intelligent Transportation technology after they demonstrate their worthiness by passing tests collaboratively created according to these standards and rules.
More transparency between government and business could also have prevented or fixed more quickly recently reported vehicle safety problems. Open standards and open software may remove the opportunity to engineer proprietary software to beat emissions tests. New techniques to maintain software quality may help government and business work together to improve quality control of manufactured parts such as ignition switches and airbag inflators. Past unnecessary deaths and serious injuries, and excessive pollution associated with these examples demonstrate our current opportunity to improve existing review systems.
Over the last six months, mass media reported on vehicle hacking to access vehicle control systems and expose private data. Together government and business could more effectively prevent hacking by agreeing to use open standards and open software. They allow the most thorough scrutiny to obtain the highest levels of safety security and data privacy in software operated systems, without hindering innovation.
New York City’s Department of Transportation recently received a competitive grant from the US Department of Transportation to pilot Intelligent Transportation technologies. The pilot will use some of the same components as autonomous systems and offers similar benefits. New York City and its public and private partners will deploy and evaluate the usefulness of specialized hardware, software, and communications to improve safety, reduce pollution, and ease traffic congestion. There’s room for many techniques and all responsible players to provide the benefits offered by Intelligent Transportation technologies.
Autonomous robot cars won’t be benevolent like the Sonny robot in the I, Robot movie adaptation nor murderous like most of the robots in the "Terminator" movies. They are transportation on public roads. Government and business need to collaborate better so that the robot cars can safely drive among us.
Schachter is chief technology officer for the New York City Department of Transportation, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.