Washington — At a Capitol Hill roundtable Tuesday, industry reps and lawmakers grappled with potential safety issues concerning how human drivers will interact with emerging autonomous technologies on roadways.
The discussion, organized by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, drew a standing-room-only crowd on a rainy day in Washington.
David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, sounded optimistic that autonomous technologies could one day reduce the incidence and severity of crashes but said there is “no guarantee” the technologies will deliver on that promise.
He lamented the lack of a comprehensive database tracking and measuring what kind of impact automated features are having on safety, and encouraged lawmakers to think about developing policy to make that information available.
And as more driving functions become automated over time, IIHS is concerned some human drivers will fail to understand the limitations of the automated systems on their vehicles, Zuby said.
“Occasionally, in order to get the automated cars to get to interact more smoothly with humans, engineers are designing them to behave more like humans,” Zuby said. “But if we go too far down that path, allowing the automated cars to behave like humans, how are we really going to eliminate all of ...”
“We’ll be back where we started,” interjected Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat and delegate representing the District of Columbia.
“Exactly,” Zuby said. “We can be guaranteed that automated cars aren’t going to be driving around drunk, but are we going to allow them to speed, for instance.”
David Strickland, counsel and spokesman for the Self-driving Coalition for Safer Streets lobbying group, said self-driving cars are designed to obey the rules of the road and avoid crashes. But he acknowledged concerns about human drivers in non-automated vehicles becoming more aggressive on the road toward self-driving cars.
“Like, if you know for a fact a self-driving car will always yield to you, you (might) dive in front of it in order to get ahead,” said Strickland, former chief of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. “There’s going to be those behavioral issues out there.”
Aggressive driving predates self-driving cars, Strickland added.
Blair Anderson, undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the status quo in the immediate future will be “mixed use” of the roadways by automated and traditional drivers, and the department is interested in research on the “human interface” between both types of drivers.
“There’s little ‘tells’ that you get from the drivers around you. They give you a sense of what they’re going to do. Are they going to try to cut you off? Are they paying attention to something outside their car, and they’re probably going to hit the brakes?” Anderson said.
“As we look at automated vehicles, there’s a need to think about how does the automated vehicle — when there’s not those kind of traditional human ‘tells’ taking place — communicate some of their intentions? How do they communicate to a pedestrian that they’re on some sort of automated function at the moment?”
Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said Congress could help by promoting cooperation and coordination among federal agencies with a role in overseeing various parts of the autonomous vehicle revolution — from NHTSA to the Federal Communications Commission, to the Environmental Protection Agency, to the Departments of Homeland Security and Agriculture.
Spear said the policy framework under development also needs to be more inclusive of the commercial sector, highlighting issues such as emissions and vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
“We talk about driverless (vehicles), but I don’t think you want a hazardous cargo going down the road without a driver in the truck to secure it. We have regulations and, in an ISIS world, you want those folks in the cab securing that cargo,” Spear said.
“We have to talk about where we want people accompanying cargo and where we can live without it.”