Lemov: Driverless cars: Promising or dangerous?

Michael R. Lemov

People tend to forget the past. The challenges and opportunities of the furious present often blot out our memories.

The latest example is the current excitement over the development of driverless automobiles. There is great interest in the potential convenience and possible safety advantages of such cars. Currently four states — Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and California — authorize the licensing of driverless cars, at least for test purposes, on public roads.

Driverless vehicles rely on about $150,000 of computerized equipment each. To date they have been tested by the developer, Google in Toyota and Audi cars for over a million miles. They have also been involved in at least 12 accidents, caused exclusively by “the other driver,” according to Google. Unfortunately, the cars cannot at present see potholes in the road, or humans such as traffic police. Google promises to fix these problems and others by 2020.

State interest in attracting developers of driverless cars is understandable. But the history of motor vehicle safety in the United States compels a more cautious reaction. Self driving vehicles are, after all, just cars. The safety history of our cars and other vehicles offers a sobering perspective.

During the first six decades of the 20th century, motor vehicles went from a new, exciting technology to the dominant form of transportation in the nation. The motor vehicle industry became the richest and most powerful in the United States and in the world.

Until 1966, car manufacturers sold styling and horsepower, not safety. They ferociously resisted efforts to promote either voluntarily improved design or state regulation of vehicle design and construction.

As deaths in automobile crashes skyrocketed during those 60 years, calls by a few lonely doctors, engineers and policemen for the design of safer vehicles by the industry itself, or by law, went largely unheeded.

The public, too, was lulled into a sense of complacency. People were not much interested in buying and paying for safer motor vehicles.

In 1961, the president of General Motors, John T. Gordon, addressed the National Safety Congress. He said that the trend toward regulating the safety of vehicle construction was “radical and ill-conceived.”

With annual highway deaths exceeding 50,000 people in 1965, General Motors’ vice president for engineering told leading newspapers : “Our cars are safe and quite reliable...if drivers do everything they should, there wouldn’t be accidents, would there?”

What finally staunched the flow of blood and rising fatalities on the nation’s roadways was the National Motor Vehicle Safety Act. It passed Congress in 1966 over determined industry opposition. There are now more than 50 major federal safety standards in effect governing the design and performance of motor vehicles sold in this country.

Such regulations as seat belts and frontal airbags, which were also opposed by the automobile industry, currently save over 12,000 lives a year alone. Total annual deaths are down to about 32,000. The death rate in passenger car motor vehicles has dropped a stunning 80 percent since the Act was passed. The law has saved over 600,000 American lives since 1966.

What does this history tell us about the present rush to design and build driverless cars and parallel efforts in some states to limit regulation of safety requirements? It says a lot.

As things stand now, there are no federal safety standards regarding the performance and construction of the dozens of computers which operate the brakes, steering and gas pedals of our existing cars and would control driverless cars. There is no standard yet regarding what kind of driverless cars would be allowed on the public roads and what safety systems would be required in them. And that is the way the budding new industry likes it.

Before rushing ahead with the deployment of this provocative new technology, we should make sure that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is armed with adequate technology, money and staff to fully monitor the safety of these new cars.

The states should not be quick to limit their part in licensing and regulating testing driverless cars by the possible economic benefits of attracting apparent economic development. Now as ever, consumer, car buyers —and their elected representatives— must beware.

Let’s not forget the past, and perhaps be doomed to repeat it.

Michael R. Lemov is author of “Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics and Death” and former counsel to the House Commerce Committee.