The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) wants to have its cake and eat it, too, with its new self-driving car guidelines. The old proverb is easier to understand as “you can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” Yet, that is exactly what the DOT seems to be doing in its new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. The guidelines trumpet the many potential advantages of automated vehicles, including saving lives, a dramatic decrease in the number of crashes, enabling greater accessibility for people with disabilities, the aging, and the poor, saving energy, reducing air pollution, and increasing infrastructure capacity. However, the policy itself will delay the eventual introduction of an automated system that can perform all driving tasks under all conditions that a human driver could perform by not addressing the central obstacle.
The guidelines outline several rules the DOT will expect automated vehicles to be able to abide by to be considered safe. Companies will be expected to use these rules to test their vehicles as they develop them. Included in the list are:
- Data Recording and Sharing
- System Safety
- Vehicle Cybersecurity
- Human Machine Interface
- Consumer Education and Training
- Registration and Certification
- Post-Crash Behavior
- Federal, State, and Local Laws
- Ethical Considerations
- Automation Function
- Operational Design Domain
- Object and Event Detection and Response
- Fall Back
- Validation Methods
No matter how closely manufacturers follow the rules, autonomous vehicles are not now and never will be perfect no matter how much better they are than the current system. They may have the potential to save 94% more lives (which translates into over a 1 million fewer deaths worldwide), but they will never be 100% effective, especially while autonomous vehicles are under development. What manufacturers most fear about introducing a fully self-driving SAE Level 5 automobile is a Samsung Galaxy Note7 type of debacle, with an unexpected problem creating an organizational threatening liability. Unlimited product liability has threatened other industries in the United States before, and there is a precedent in civil aviation.
General Aviation Precedent
Production of aircraft for non-scheduled air services peaked in the late 1970s at 18,000 units in 1978, but dropped to 928 units in 1994. During this period, general aviation aircraft manufacturers terminated production of many of their piston-powered, propeller aircraft and struggled with solvency. One of the reasons for the industry decline was a rapid increase in manufacturers’ liability insurance premiums. In 1962, the average cost of liability insurance for each airplane manufactured in the United States increased from approximately $50 per plane in 1962 to $100,000 per plane in 1988, a 2,000-fold increase in just 24 years.
In response, Congress passed The General Aviation Revitalization Act in 1994, to limit general aviation manufacturers’ liability. Although the act remains controversial to this day, the industry now ships approximately 2,500 aircraft a year.
A Modest Proposal
Instead of issuing guidelines that subject the manufacturer designing new autonomous vehicle systems to the DOT’s defects, recall, and enforcement authority, the report could have advocated limiting the manufacturer’s liability in exchange for compliance. This would speed the introduction of a product that potentially has many potential benefits to society. The time to do this is now, before the first product liability suits are filed. Instead, the DOT wants to see the benefits of self-driving cars without changing its role in the process, in other words, having its cake and eating it, too.