Google and the National Highway Traffic Safety Admnistration (NHTSA) have recently joined forces in a battle against drivers. It is an unusual alliance and one with significant implications for the future of automotive safety in the U.S. and globally.
That alliance was manifest this week in a letter sent by NHTSA to Chris Urmson (Letter: http://tinyurl.com/zadphfj) director of Google’s self-driving car project, indicating that Google’s SDS (self-driving system) will qualify as a driver for regulatory purposes. This follows recent statements by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that it’s clear that “unsafe behaviors and human choices … contribute to increasing traffic deaths on a national scale.”
Secretary Foxx was referring to NHTSA’s report of a 9.3% increase in estimated highway fatalities for the first nine months of 2015. The agency has not officially determined the cause for the increase. Foxx quoted NHTSA research as showing that human factors contribute to 94% of crashes.
This 94% figure refers to a NHTSA report published nearly a year ago called: “Critical Reasons for Crashes Investigated in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey.” The report was based on a survey of a weighted sampling of 5,470 crashes over a 2.5-year period.
The study indeed identified drivers as the “critical reason” for 94% of crashes. The report then notes: “However, in none of these cases was the assignment intended to blame the driver for causing the crash.”
The report then provides additional details regarding the causality for crashes in which the driver was the “critical reason.”
So Secretary Foxx says drivers are at fault. NHTSA’s own research appears to blame drivers. The conclusion appears to be obvious that drivers are the problem – which is great news for auto makers.
If a machine can be a driver and human drivers drive poorly, the long-term prospects for human driving of any kind is not good. But it must be reassuring for automakers to learn that all those horrible crashes that are killing 100 people in the U.S. every day – and injuring more – are no fault of the auto makers. It’s all those crappy drivers and their poor decision making.
The automotive industry has a long history of blaming drivers for collisions and crashes and the resulting injuries and fatalities. That history is detailed in Michael Lemov’s “Car Safety Wars” and goes all the way back to the 1950’s when industry resistance to the use of airbags and seatbelts was ingrained and widespread.
The battles over airbags and seatbelts were eventually won by the regulators who demonstrated that these technologies, if required on all cars, could save lives in the event of a crash. Car makers blamed the drivers for the crashes, but safety systems were shown to be able to save lives anyway – especially when metal dashboards were replaced among other things.
Somehow a step forward, blessing Google’s driverless car technology, looks and sounds eerily like a throwback mentality that is diverting the NHTSA from the kind of research it ought to be doing on making cars even more safe than they already are. Advanced sensor technologies including radar, LiDAR and cameras offer the prospect of life-saving solutions none of which are being subjected to agency review as part of potential rule-making.
The last major mandate pursued by the agency was the back-up camera mandate, which is expected to save 200-300 lives annually. Meanwhile, highway fatalities are spiking upward as vehicle sales hit records and gas prices plummet.
The NHTSA’s long-term vision, as reflected in the recent Smart Cities Challenge application criteria, is skewed toward both autonomous and automated driving, two very different scenarios, the latter of which will required expensive infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. drivers and passengers are likely to die long before this vision is realized.
It’s time for the NHTSA to get real and get back to fundamental research to identify the next wave of mandated technologies that will be capable of saving lives. The NHTSA has been accused of being captive to the automotive industry, with multiple former General Motors executives holding senior agency positions. Now it appears, with Google’s hiring of former assistant administrator Ron Medford, that NHTSA is falling under the sway of Google.
It would be nice if NHTSA could actually commence doing the bidding of the American people rather than letting itself be pushed around by lobbyists with vested interests. A good start might be mandating automatic emergency braking or cross-traffic alert or pedestrian airbags. Let’s get serious about saving lives rather than pointlessly blaming drivers for crashes.
Addendum:To the list of other mandate-able safety technologies can be added: blind spot detection, lane departure warning, curve over-speed warning, and collision avoidance.