Editorial: Set safety structure for self-driving tests

The Detroit News

Emerging technologies often come with some risk, particularly in the mobility sector. Early airplanes fell from the sky far more often than they do today. The first trains frequently jumped their tracks. And the Model T had a tendency to run off the road.

It is to be expected that pioneering self-driving vehicles will suffer similar mishaps as they are tested in real world conditions.

And that happened earlier this week in Tempe, Arizona, where an autonomous car operated by the Uber ride sharing company struck and killed a pedestrian. The victim, who was crossing the street with her bicycle, was hit by the driverless vehicle, which was in autonomous mode.

Police are still investigating, and they say it is possible the death may not have been preventable even with a real driver behind the wheel.

The woman was apparently outside the designated crosswalk when she was hit.

Still, the fatal accident has heightened concerns about testing autonomous vehicles on streets and highways that are in everyday use. And it highlights the need for uniform regulations to assure that the development of the technology does not endanger public safety.

Currently, there is no federal framework to regulate self-driving car safety. Congress should catch up with the rapid pace at which these vehicles are being developed and placed on the road for testing.

Michigan’s Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is pushing a bill that would apply some basic safety standards to autonomous vehicles before they can be tested on public roads.

His bill would require manufacturers to submit safety evaluation reports to the secretary of transportation addressing how well the vehicles performed on tests of crash worthiness, cybersecurity and other measures.

It would also establish a committee of expert to establish the testing standards and how the test data will be shared throughout the industry.

Requirements are included for beefed up consumer education on the capabilities and limitations of self-driving systems. And the Transportation Department would be directed to work with manufacturers to identify and disclose cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

The bill is a good start toward bringing some order to the testing of self-driving vehicles without overly restricting the ability of manufacturers to live test their products.

Eventually, autonomous vehicles should greatly reduce traffic fatalities and injuries. That is a major reason for developing them. It’s an exciting technology, and bringing it to market offers tangible societal benefits.

Even so, while taking the steps to get to a self-driving future, collateral damage in the form of injuries and deaths of pedestrians and other motorists is not acceptable.