Op-Ed: Approval Process Must Slow

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Op-Ed Commentary by Joan Clay­brook and Jamie Court Joan Clay­book is a for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Jamie Court is pres­i­dent of Con­sumer Watch­dog.


Aman died be­cause his self-driv­ing car couldn’t drive. His Tesla Model S, run­ning on Au­topi­lot, crashed into a white semi in Florida, mis­tak­ing it for bright sky. This makes Joshua Brown, 40, the first ca­su­alty of both a ro­bot car’s fail­ures and au­tomak­ers’ and reg­u­la­tors’ fail­ure to take its haz­ards se­ri­ously.


Far from of­fer­ing pub­lic warn­ings, Tesla and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion trans­porta­tion safety of­fi­cials hid Brown’s death from the pub­lic, in­vestors and other govern­ment of­fi­cials for nearly two months. In the wake of the dis­clo­sure, re­ports emerged about other au­topi­lot fail­ures, but nei­ther the car­maker nor fed­eral au­thor­i­ties has yet re­called the de­fec­tive Au­topi­lot.


Tesla ar­gues that its tech­nol­ogy is sound and that driv­ers should have their hands on the wheel, ready for prob­lems. But an Au­topi­lot that can­not dis­tin­guish a white truck from a white sky is not ready for the road. It’s shock­ing that fed­eral safety reg­u­la­tors did not re­quire test­ing the sys­tem to pre­vent Tesla’s oc­cu­pants from be­ing hu­man guinea pigs.


The episode high­lights how the hype over ro­bot cars has proved an opi­oid for Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, who are rac­ing to is­sue new ro­bot car “guide­lines,” not manda­tory safety reg­u­la­tions sub­ject to pub­lic re­view, be­fore the pres­i­dent’s term is up. This ac­cel­er­a­tion could come this week when Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary An­thony Foxx and Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion chief Mark Rosekind are in San Fran­cisco, where they are ex­pected to an­nounce fast­track guide­lines at a ro­bot-car sym­po­sium.


Foxx and Rosekind have demon­strated a pat­tern of pri­vate de­ci­sion-mak­ing with ro­bot car­mak­ers that has ex­cluded the pub­lic and puts us at risk. They re­cently an­nounced a pri­vate, vol­un­tary agree­ment with 20 au­tomak­ers for in­stal­la­tion of semi­au­tonomous Au­to­matic Emer­gency Brak­ing that, de­spite cit­i­zen pleas, by­passed a trans­par­ent rule-mak­ing process with pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion. This un­usual cir­cum­ven­tion of pub­lic process was fol­lowed with hear­ings on ro­bot car “guide­lines” but without any draft “guide­lines” about which to com­ment, once again ex­clud­ing ef­fec­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion. The NHTSA ear­lier had is­sued a le­gal “in­ter­pre­ta­tion” that com­put­ers are equiv­a­lent to driv­ers without any pub­lic no­tice or com­ments so­licited or co­or­di­na­tion with state of­fi­cials who might dis­agree.


Test­ing in Cal­i­for­nia proves ro­bot cars are not ready for the road without en­force­able rules and sub­stan­tial over­sight. Re­ports filed with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles by Google show its self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy failed 341 times in 424,000 miles driven, forc­ing hu­man driv­ers to take over.


Google’s cars were of­ten not ca­pa­ble of “see­ing” pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists and low-hang­ing branches, or deal­ing with emer­gency ve­hi­cles, pot­holes or bad weather, let alone the hu­man-driven cars all around them. None­the­less, Google in­sists on build­ing its first gen­er­a­tion of ro­bot cars without steer­ing wheels, brakes or ac­cel­er­a­tors that al­low hu­man driv­ers to take back con­trol of the ve­hi­cle. Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tors have not en­dorsed Google’s plan, so Google, a ma­jor Obama sup­porter, has turned to the feds.


The only safe road for­ward is for a sober vi­sion of ro­bot-car devel­op­ment that does not put the rush to newer tech­nol­ogy above the val­ues of safety, trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity.


Pres­i­dent Obama should with­hold any in­dus­try “guid­ance” without a pub­lic rule­mak­ing process. Car­mak­ers like Tesla must stop blam­ing vic­tims and take le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ity for Au­topi­lot fail­ures. Volvo and Mercedes have pledged to do that. All other ro­bot car­mak­ers should fol­low.


This week, San Fran­cisco can pave the way for ro­bot car safety or rush an im­per­fect tech­nol­ogy that could cause may­hem.

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