Driverless cars, ethics and public safety

October 25, 2016
by Michael R. Lemov

On Sept. 20, the Department of Transportation, by law our primary national traffic safety enforcement agency, issued its long awaited “guidelines” for the development and sale of driverless cars. The Department attempted, Solomon-like, to balance its guidance between ensuring public safety and promoting the speedy development of driverless cars (called “Highly Automated Vehicles”) for use on our roadways.

For all its fanfare, DOT’s guidance failed to achieve its primary mission of ensuring safety.

DOT and its delegate agency NHTSA did not issue any new enforceable safety regulations for driverless vehicles, at least for the present. It did not propose any premarketing standards or requirements for automated cars, except to say it will shortly ask all producers of driverless cars and component systems to answer a comprehensive questionnaire about their proposed designs and test methods. Absent was any commitment by the federal government to actually regulate the new cars before they are sold to the public for use on public roads.
The omission is discouraging and could prove dangerous, particularly in view of the current record of partially automated vehicles getting into accidents. Some of these crashes have been deadly. It seems as if the guidelines were designed to preempt states such as California which already has issued enforceable safety regulations, such as requiring a driver and a steering wheel in all vehicles.

The Department did warn producers that the current penalties for not reporting a safety related defect publicly would apply to the automated cars, despite the weakness of the current penalties and the agency’s failure to force reporting of past lethal dangers of non-driverless cars, such as Toyota’s sudden acceleration, General Motors’s ignition shut off problem and Takata’s exploding airbags. In all these cases, and many more, the lack of adequate federal civil and any criminal sanctions apparently induced manufacturers to gamble on not reporting the accidents, even while people were being injured and killed.

The ethical and safety issues raised by the Department’s waffle are troubling.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company made perhaps a more significant contribution to the current debate. Mr. Ford recently called on the automobile industry, the government and public institutions to address the “ethical issues emerging in a world where driverless cars will make life and death decisions in roadway crashes.”

Such issues, according to Mr. Ford, include, for example, situations in which a self driving car must choose between the lesser of two evils. The choice, as Mr. Ford put it was between “swerving onto a crowded sidewalk to avoid being rear ended by a speeding truck, or staying put and placing its occupants in mortal danger.” And Mr. Ford noted, we urgently need a national discussion of the ethics of the new technology.

The difficult choices to be faced by any computer driven decision-making processes of a driverless car are examples of just some of the ethical issues involving safety. Others include the ability of the driver to take control of the car, particularly when a driverless car is incapable of operating such as on rural and winding roads and the need for a backup system when the car’s radar fails to see objects.

The history of the development of the automobile and its safety regulation in the United States establishes that technological advances need both ethical and basic safety regulation before, not after, they go on the market, as well as an enforceable federal watchdog with teeth.

The airbag, which currently saves about 2,500 lives a year would never have been required on all U.S. cars if the auto industry, which tried for years to kill the regulation, had its way.

Stronger car roofs (now mandated at three times the weight of the vehicle) to resist death and injury in rollover crashes, took consumer organizations decades to ram through the federal safety agency over continuous auto industry opposition.

Seat belts were not mandated in American automobiles until 1968, although their life-saving potential had been known to automotive engineers since at least the 1920s. Seat belts currently save over 12,500 lives a year.

So it is, or should be, with the emerging automated vehicle technology. We can and should have both ethical automobile technology and life saving mandated safety regulations. But that will only happen if we, as a society of millions of drivers and passengers avoid getting dazzled by the new technology and demand mandated rules for safe development and use from our lawmakers and the Department of Transportation.

Michael R. Lemov is the author of “Car Safety Wars: 100 Years of Technology, Politics and Death” published by Roman and Littlefield and Fairleigh Dickenson Press in 2015 and former counsel to the House Commerce Committee.