Self-driving Uber death should be a safety wake-up call for Congress

Self-driving Uber death should be a safety wake-up call for Congress
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A woman walking her bike across an Arizona street was hit and killed by a driverless car last week. The car was supposed to be equipped with the latest in self-driving technology and a supervising safety driver as a backup if something went wrong. As a result, Uber and other companies have paused their autonomous vehicle testing programs.

Elaine Herzberg’s death was a tragedy — and a wake-up call.

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Rumors swirl regarding disconnected sensors and the effectiveness of safety drivers. Yet, as we await the results of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation, here is what we already know: the current rules are not doing enough to protect the public because they are not designed to do so. 

 

If auto manufacturers and technology companies can deliver on their promises, driverless cars could save thousands of lives and change driving as we know it. Today, motor vehicles crashes are the second-leading cause of unintentional death in the U.S., and the leading cause of death for 5- to 24- year-olds.

Yet, instead of proposing commonsense regulation of an industry that possesses both tremendous potential and unlimited risk, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is working exclusively on how government should exit the field. This deregulatory direction has led down a path resulting in a complete failure to address safety and the first death by driverless car. The DOT seems focused on a future that may never materialize instead of overseeing the multitude of necessary and incremental steps that must first be taken to ensure the safety of automated driving technology at its core.

Moreover, the AV START Act being considered by the Senate preempts the ability for states to protect their citizenry even in the absence of federal regulations — instead of insisting on proof of safety before allowing for testing on public roads. And, adding insult to injury, the bill contains a glaring loophole — it has no check on industry executives who see only dollar signs. Those injured by faulty, or hacked, driverless cars may be forced into secret arbitration proceedings instead of being able to hold the industry accountable in court.

This approach plays directly into the hands of those who would put speed ahead of public safety. Just read their own words.

Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick went so far as to say that to defeat the competition, the company should “take all the shortcuts we can” and that “this is a race and we need to win, second place is the first [loser].” These conversations are not about a new app but about a two-ton SUV that could soon be driving in your community absent a driver or any safety rules or standards.

Put simply, it is all well and good for Ford to garner press about delivering pizzas in Miami with driverless vehicles, or for Waymo to become the talk of the internet by partnering with a luxury carmaker, while they continue tests on minivans in Chandler, Arizona. Yet, as we saw up the road in Tempe, these publicity stunts, seemingly intended to generate as much media buzz as testing data, can have fatal results.

Fortunately, car and technology companies can innovate, compete, and thrive for their shareholders while at the same time being both safe and accountable to the public. Safety and profitability don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts. To ensure they are not, the federal government, in the form of DOT and Congress, must remember its first and foremost responsibility is to protect drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Now — at a moment when public confidence in this technology is severely shaken — is the time to enact self-driving car legislation that prioritizes safety by fostering an environment that rewards the kind of innovations that make the cars of today and tomorrow safer and more reliable.  Unfortunately, the AV START Act would allow more driverless vehicles on the roads without adequate standards to ensure they are safe.  After Tempe, Congress needs to take a deep breath and think about how to fix this environment before moving forward.

You may not have seen a driverless car yet in your town, but eventually you will because the financial incentives remain enticing. We should all root for self-driving car technology to be done right because too many people die in traffic crashes every day, and too many underserved communities stand to benefit. Still, without building a safety net first, we are likely to see more unnecessary, and tragic, headlines about driverless car deaths.

Jason Levine is the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, DC independent, non-profit focused on auto safety, quality, and fuel economy.