WASHINGTON, D.C. — So-called “robot cars” are not going to take over the roads and steal everybody’s jobs. That is the first thing Gail Gottehrer, of the Law Office of Gail Gottehrer LLC, wants people to know.
Gottehrer, whose practice focuses on emerging technologies, including autonomous vehicles, also is a member of the State of Connecticut’s Task Force to Study Fully Autonomous Vehicles; New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Autonomous Vehicles and the Law; and Co-Chairs the Task Force’s Regulatory, Safety, Law and Policy Subcommittee. She believes that transportation technology is moving in the fast lane towards autonomous vehicles, and while we do have a way to go, the progress itself is a good thing.
“There are so many benefits to autonomous vehicles. Think of people who are legally blind or disabled or can’t use their hands or feet,” she says. “Level 4 vehicles (see chart) offer so many options for mobility, how do we not, from a societal perspective, try and get there?”
The first thing we must do is to overcome people’s initial resistance. It is natural to have a fear of the unknown and of technology, Gottehrer says, adding that history has shown that technology is not perfect. “When you read the surveys out there, you see that people have a deep fear of automation, and in particular, concerns about safety,” she says. So how do we overcome that?
People have a deep distrust of driverless cars, according to studies. Yet about 40,000 people a year are killed in motor vehicle crashes and more than 1 million injured, according to driving data. And a vast majority — as much as 94%! — of those accidents are caused by human error, such as talking, texting, distraction, fatigue, or intoxication.
To counter this public perception, the federal government needs to demonstrate that it’s taking the issue of safety seriously, Gottehrer explains, adding that she is seeing that happen. For example, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a report, Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0, where safety and reducing fatalities on the road are the top priorities.
The study emphasizes the importance of revising safety standards to align better with modern times, calling for continued strict standards while concurrently allowing for an innovative approach to approving fast-moving technologies by allowing carmakers to demonstrate the safety of the vehicle. For example, think of current regulations that require all cars to have driver’s side mirrors. In an autonomous vehicle, those mirrors may be unnecessary and possibly redundant because there are sensors and cameras around the car and a computer screen showing all of this on the dashboard.
NHTSA is also giving car manufacturers the ability to petition for exemptions to test new autonomous vehicle designs. For example, General Motors petitioned NHTSA for an exemption from current regulations to test a zero-emission, Level 4 autonomous vehicle in a geo-fenced area, Gottehrer says. The idea is to test the technology, so we develop low-emission vehicles more quickly without unreasonably reducing safety performance.
Of course, the government will need to look at mobility as an opportunity where one size surely doesn’t fit all. What is needed to move citizens around in rural America (where getting to and from mass transit is an issue) looks far different than a downtown business district or even a large college campus. In a large city, some questions that city planners and governments will need to ask are, “Where are the opportunities?”
This may work best as a “mix and match” formula, Gottehrer says, where cities have a menu of options and officials can pick the ones that best suits their citizen’s needs. For college campuses, for example, Gottehrer strongly supports the use of Level 4 autonomous shuttles to move students around on controlled, private roads, likening it to the Disney Monorail. “Today’s college students are much more comfortable with technology. It is perfectly natural to them to open an app and find an e-bike or scooter,” she says, “This also applies to mass transit, like autonomous shuttles on campuses.”
Even Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao chimed in late last year while speaking at an autonomous vehicle test center operated by the University of Michigan. “Our country is on the verge of one of the most exciting innovations in transportation,” Secretary Chao stated.
While the future of technology is here, we are still in the early stages in terms of getting autonomous vehicles deployed on public roads, Gottehrer notes. While we are nowhere near the Jetson’s flying car, we are getting closer, mile by autonomous mile, and maximizing the environmental benefits of driverless cars.