DOT Issues Safety Checklist for Self-Driving Cars

By Michael Hill

They’re coming — self-driving cars that will rely less on human control and more on autopilot.

So, this week, the federal transportation department issued a safety checklist for automakers to follow. Steve Carrellas is with the National Motorists Association.

“I think it’s a real good start,” Carrellas said.

The government made the reason for its checklist unmistakably clear: safety.

Last year, 35,000 people died on the roadways, 94 percent of the crashes because of human choice or error. The government says, “An important promise of HAVs [Highly Automated Vehicles] is to address and mitigate that overwhelming majority of crashes.”

Is the government saying in this scenario that we think robots, computers, automation can do a better job of driving than humans?

“Yeah, that’s what the premise is. It’s an end goal that is probably true. It’s getting there is the challenge,” Carrellas said.

The government has been equipping our cars with automation for years. Some examples: cruise control, automatic braking systems, detection of drowsiness. Now to get those self-driving cars on the road, the government is requiring automakers to come up with ways to detect when someone is under the influence of alcohol for instance and unable to safely take control of the car from the autopilot.

Professor Alain Kornhauser directs Princeton University’s transportation program and is the faculty adviser to Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering where they do robotics research to solve real world problems.

“This is not a way for people who are under the influence to get home and one shouldn’t even be suggesting that it is. So this is a beginning step. This is to be used by people who are good drivers who know how to use the vehicles, who are not just driving like an idiot out there,” Kornhauser said.

Automakers must prove they’ve met the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — or NHTSA — guidelines before they offer self-driving cars to consumers for the road. That’s a reversal in policy over the last 50 years.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, “This automated-vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as DOT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front end of development.”

“I think that is absolutely the appropriate way to address these,” Kornhauser said.

A whole new technological world that hinges on putting safety first.