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Self-Driving Cars: Should the Government Mandate That Testing of Autonomous Technologies Be Published?

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author photo by Russ Heaps February 2017

To date, regulating the testing of self-driving cars has fallen mostly to the individual states. In the few states issuing some degree of formal regulations, those regs have much more to do with safety issues than any sort of real oversight of testing processes. Until the fall of 2016, the federal government hadn't really addressed autonomous technology or autonomous vehicles (AVs) in any meaningful way.

In the latter part of 2016, however, the U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) jumped into the deep end of the autonomous-technology pool. Adopting the SAE International's 6 Levels of autonomous driving definitions, it also published a 116-page document outlining guidelines for testing autonomous technologies and reporting those tests to the DOT. No doubt firmer and more extensive regulations will follow. Earlier this year, the DOT published a list of 10 designated official autonomous-technology testing sites in 9 different states.

There are those who argue that the DOT hasn't gone far enough. Citing the public's right to know, they want the DOT to mandate that testing results be published. Some testing host states, like California, already publish the results of autonomous-technology tests conducted within their borders. Currently, such transparency is at the discretion of the individual state. Not all do.

Making the Sausage

Do we really want or need to know how the sausage is made? Some people do. Do they have the right to know? The answer is probably yes.

With nearly 75 percent of the population indicating a reluctance, if not outright refusal, to ride in totally self-driving cars, the autonomous-technology industry has a steep public-relations hill to climb. Carmakers are steadily adding semi-autonomous technologies to cars. Features such as lane-keeping assist, forward-collision braking and self-parking assist are building blocks of fully autonomous vehicles.

As consumers become accustomed to various semi-autonomous technologies, they become more trusting. However, having confidence in a car parking itself is a far cry from trusting it to negotiate a crowded expressway at 70 miles per hour. Revealing test results for cars performing that task and others could go a long way toward building the public's confidence in AVs.

Yeah, But

Although you can argue whether mandating the publishing of test results should be a role of the federal government, there really isn't a sound reason for not publishing them. In reality, there are so many developers conducting so many tests in so many places that almost no one beyond the media and committed AV geeks would take the time to comb through them all. Most of us don't much care.

A separate case can be made for releasing information on crashes involving test AVs. So far, though, none have been of the family-of-four-killed-in-a-fiery-crash variety. They have all been fender benders, mostly involving human-drivers rear-ending test cars. The one death related to an autonomous-technology crash wasn't a test car, but a privately owned Tesla in which the driver overestimated the car's Autopilot capabilities.

Tens of thousands of people board airplanes every day without having read the testing results of the hundreds of systems and components required to keep a 450-ton aluminum tube in the air. And if the public knew how many plane crashes occurred between the Wright brothers' first flight in 1903 and the first passenger flight in 1954, it's questionable whether any sane person could muster the courage to get on the thing.

What it means to you: There's no reason autonomous-technology test results shouldn't be shared with the public, but do you really care?

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Self-Driving Cars: Should the Government Mandate That Testing of Autonomous Technologies Be Published? - Autotrader