Driverless cars face long road before adoption

Driverless cars face long road before adoption
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The first-ever federal guidance for driverless cars was seen as major a boost for the autonomous vehicle industry, but there is still a long road ahead before self-driving cars are widely adopted.

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Though the emerging technology isn't even fully developed yet, driverless cars could face an avalanche of resistance from skeptical consumers, existing workers whose jobs might be wiped out and companies that could take a financial hit in a driverless car era.

“We can change the world… but there’s going to be forces working against this,” Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), said Tuesday during a panel discussion on Capitol Hill. “There’s a lot of jobs that are in drivers, there’s a lot of insurance companies making money, there’s a lot of collision repair shops… that are going to say this is not the best idea.”

“I’ve heard people say this is not worth it because of the jobs that will be [lost],” Shapiro added. “My question to them is: how many jobs equal one life?”

Polling shows a mixed bag when it comes to consumer perceptions about self-driving cars. A recent CTA survey found that 70 percent of respondents were ready to test out a self-driving car.

But a survey released by the Altman Vilandrie asnd Company last month shows that 64 percent of people indicated they would not buy an automated vehicle because they believe the technology is dangerous, while a University of Michigan survey earlier this year found less than 16 percent of consumers were totally OK with having fully autonomous cars.

David Strickland, a spokesperson for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), believes that opposition will quickly erode as more people gain hands-on experience with the emerging technology.

“Once people are in the technology, they are universally not only accepting, but asking, ‘when can I have it?’” Strickland said. “I think the consumer issue will frankly be a very simple issue.”

And Hilary Cain, director of technology and innovation Policy for Toyota, pointed out that consumers won’t be forced to use the technology just because it’s available on the market.

“If you’re in the subset of the population that wants it and welcomes it, you’ll be able to buy it,” Cain said. “I think the market will sort of decide.”

But self-driving cars could also face a series of regulatory hurdles before they are available for purchase by the masses.

Panelists expressed concern on Tuesday about a patchwork of state regulations, or 50 different “mini-NHTSAs” throughout the country.

The guidelines unveiled by the White House last month sought to establish a uniform framework and clarify the state versus federal role, although it’s a legally non-binding document.

The guidance suggests that states be responsible for licensing human drivers, enforcing traffic laws and establishing testing requirement, while the policy plan envisions the federal government as having primary control over the actual automation software and recalls.

“People expect their cars to work in one place to another. With self-driving cars it gets a little more complex,” Shapiro said. “It’s not just a matter of following the speed limits.”

Some industry and technology experts have also worried about whether NHTSA will seek pre-market approval authority, which was identified in the federal guidance as a potential tool to help the agency oversee the safe development and deployment of driverless vehicles.

Panelists criticized the agency for suggesting it could use the Federal Aviation Administration’s model for pre-market approval because they said the process can take up to five years and stifle innovation.

“That shouldn’t be our model,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at George Mason University. “I think NHTSA needs to be careful.”

Although Cain agreed that the approach may be flawed, she said it was at least worth having a conversation about how the federal government can help make sure that consumers feel confident they are purchasing a safe driverless vehicle.

“There is probably some value in having a broader conversation about, ‘how do we tell you as a consumer that this particular vehicle you’re looking at does check all the boxes?’” Cain said.