Hands off! Robots are coming!
Yesterday, representatives from Google, GM, Delphi and Lyft testified before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the future of self-driving vehicles. The senators, bless their hearts, asked all the wrong questions. I don't doubt that as a legislator who normally deals with something like FCC regulation, wrapping your head around this new-fangled technology is difficult, especially if your state isn't particularly engaged with the self-driving revolution. And some of the senators had very good questions, including points about how autonomy will help seniors and disabled people. But after the five witnesses delivered their remarks (which you can read in full), the direction the conversation took was kind of awkward. (You can watch the archived webcast to see for yourself.)
A sample question: "How will this technology reduce driver fatigue?"
Uh. Well, if there's no driver, um...
Mostly, the senators were very concerned about hacking. And sure, there have been plenty of studies about the vulnerability of LIDAR sensors that most of these cars use. But this is one of the very reasons that automakers like GM are partnering with Lyft and Cruze Automation: These are technology powerhouses. They do this for a living. As Google's Chris Urmson explained eloquently, there's probably no other company on the planet better equipped to deal with cybersecurity than Google.
Then there were the concerns about privacy. Please. If you use an on-demand ride service like Lyft, or are driving around with something like Waze giving you directions, a technology company already has a complete dataset of where you live and where you go every day. And probably much, much, much more information than that.
A handful of questions referenced safety but it was more like, "WILL THE ROBOTS KILL US?" The overall tone of the questioning was not focused nearly enough on the fact that tapping the robots to drive our cars could reduce up to 94 per cent of crashes that are now due to human error. The hearing did not seem to address the fact that autonomy could greatly reduce the impact of one of the largest public health crises of our time. If self-driving cars even save half of the 40,000 lives that will be claimed by human drivers on US streets this year, or the over 1000 lives in Australia, we should do it.
In fact, Dr Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke Robotics, said the best and safest solution would be to have all autonomous cars on the road with no steering wheels tomorrow. Yes, exactly. So why don't we work towards that?
Just about the same time that the hearings were wrapping up, the last of the interactive participants of SXSW were headed home from Austin, where a great deal of the programming was focused on autonomous vehicles. Urmson delivered one of the keynote addresses right after President Obama. Panels focused on the new era of in-car entertainment. In fact, the US Department of Transportation chose the festival as the place to announce the finalists for its Smart City Challenge, which will award up to $US50 million to a city to deploy an innovative transportation solution that focuses on connected and autonomous vehicles.
Of course it wasn't surprising that autonomy was the hottest topic at a technology festival in 2016. But I think what was so striking to me was how many of the urban policymakers at SXSW already seemed to get it. In various discussions with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and many of the mayors in attendance, it was clear that these city leaders not only understood the possibilities for this type of vehicle, they were already planning for it.
It's important that USDOT is taking the lead on self-driving cars and developing draft guidelines which will be out by June. Hopefully these will override any backwards-leaning direction of some state agencies, like the misguided draft regulations by California's DMV. But it's heartening to see that the most forward-thinking leadership is already happening at the city level, where autonomous vehicles make the most sense — and will likely have the greatest impact.