In the Drive for Robot Cars, Will Regulators Keep Their Hands on the Wheel?

February 7, 2017
By Ben Kelley

Few cabinet members can claim the distinction of shaping a revolution. But that opportunity will fall to Elaine Chao, President Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Transportation. She assumes her new role at the dawn of the autonomous motor vehicle era, which promises to truly revolutionize the movement of people and goods by road and ultimately reduce crashes caused by driver error.

Revolutions can give birth to huge benefits for the human community, but they can also exact a price in blood and disruption. Replacing driver-operated cars and trucks with semi-automated and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will be a decades-long process. Like most revolutions, along the way it will be fraught with death, injury, and debate over who is responsible when harm occurs. Decisions by Ms. Chao and her department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, will act as powerful influences – including a decision on whether to ignore the need for regulations and policies that ensure AV safety.

Chao’s immediate task will be to address the recent alarming upsurge in highway crash deaths. Ending a long trend of declining fatalities, 2015 saw more than 35,000 highway deaths, a 7.2 percent increase over 2014. The ominous trend continued into the first nine months of 2016, which saw 8 percent more deaths than in the same period the previous year. But equally important will be her approach to development of “robot cars,” as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has labelled them. Given the anti-regulation stance of the Trump administration, it is likely she will follow the path charted by Obama’s Transportation Department by declining to issue binding safety regulations, and instead will negotiate permissive safety “guidelines” with commercial stakeholders in the new technology, most prominently the vehicle and software manufacturers eager to move self-driving cars into the salesroom and reap the resulting profits. Goldman Sachs has estimated that the market for advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles could grow to $96 billion in 2025 from only $3 billion last year.

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