Journal Times Editorial: Tap The Brakes On Self-Driving Cars

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Like many Americans, we’re enamored with the prospects for better living through technological advancements.

And, like many Americans, we often bristle over government regulations and the slow speed of regulators to respond to and adapt to technological change.

Today that leaves us giving a heavy sigh as we urge tapping the brakes a bit on the pell-mell rush to put self-driving cars on American roadways.

The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is steering down that road, promising to put together a “guidance” package for U.S. auto manufacturers by July. That’s in line with President Barack Obama’s 10-year, $3.9 billion automated technologies program of large-scale pilot deployments of self-driving cars.

NHTSA held a hearing on their proposal a week ago and, not surprisingly, there were some objections to their rapid initiative.

What was perhaps surprising is that some of the objections came from engineers, safety advocates — and the auto industry, which told the NHTSA to slow down and go with the government’s traditional process of setting standards and issuing regulations, not the faster and more lenient approach of writing “guidance” for the industry.

Their reasons were worthy of taking note, especially here in Wisconsin, where icy roads, blowing snow and difficult winter driving are a fact of life.

While self-driving vehicles like the Google car might do fine in public roadway tests in sunny California, that doesn’t necessarily translate to good safety records in more weather-challenged states.

Paul Scullion, safety manager of the Association of Global Automakers, told the NHTSA as much.

“While this process (setting hard regulations) is often time-consuming, these procedural safeguards are in place for valid reasons,” Scullion said.

Opponents of the fast-tracking guidance proposal said self-driving cars still can’t handle things like poorly marked pavement, including parking lots; bad weather that interferes with vehicle sensors; the inability to take directions from a police officer; and inconsistent traffic signals such as horizontal versus lateral traffic lights.

“Self-driving cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention,” John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog, told the federal agency.

In a state such as Wisconsin, where we often struggle just to keep potholes in check during our severe winters, the idea that we have clearly marked pavement year-round might well be a costly challenge for state and local governments. There will certainly be pressure to do that if self-driving cars proliferate.

State lawmakers are already grappling, so far unsuccessfully, to develop and fund a long-term highway transportation plan to handle existing infrastructure needs.

We have confidence that technology will advance and soon be able to handle these problems. Soon, but not today.

That is not to say the NHTSA shouldn’t expedite hard regulations for self-driving vehicles — it should. According to the federal agency, that process would typically take eight years and that snail’s pace should be cut in half or even less.

More than 30,000 Americans die on roads each year. Self-driving cars can probably drive that number down, but we don’t need that number to spike due to a premature rollout.

It’s more important to get it right than to get it fast. Until that day, Google cars should stay in the garage.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Lewis
  • Steven T. Lovejoy
    editor emeritus
  • Tom Farley
    news editor
  • Stephanie Jones
    managing editor

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