At an event on Capitol Hill yesterday, an expert panel explored the potential benefits of self-driving vehicles, while also noting that serious challenges must be addressed for the technology to succeed. The briefing, hosted by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), focused on a wide range of issues, with safety benefits, the role of government, and opportunities to promote the wide embrace of the technology at the top of the agenda.
The event on autonomy, the second sponsored by SAFE in the past six months, comes on the heels of last week’s House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the same topic, reflecting a growing interest on Capitol Hill and within industry over the path self-driving vehicles are likely to go.
The panel’s experts agreed that the transition to autonomy should be encouraged to occur as quickly as possible, given its potential to dramatically improve roadway safety and increase mobility for the disabled, elderly and other underserved communities.
The panel’s experts agreed that the transition to autonomy should be encouraged to occur as quickly as possible, given its potential to dramatically improve roadway safety, prevent tens of thousands of deaths, and increase mobility for the disabled, elderly and other underserved communities. The National Safety Council released new statistics last week showing that more than 40,000 Americans died in auto accidents, more 90% of which were caused by human error. Autonomous technology is believed capable of dropping that number significantly.
A principle challenge to full-scale deployment, however, is consumer acceptance. While acknowledging the point, CTA President Gary Shapiro questioned recent market research suggesting that consumers are skeptical about autonomous cars. Drawing examples from a variety of innovations, from the first cars to PCs and high definition TVs, Shapiro illustrated market research’s inability to accurately predict future consumer wants, particularly before the public is familiarized with the potential benefits of a new technology.
Shapiro expects the same to occur with autonomous cars. “If you generally ask about anything new, [consumers] don’t want to buy it. They have not yet become convinced.”
Americans, however, will ultimately embrace self-driving cars, even with temporary technological setbacks and reports of accidents, Shapiro predicted. “The perfect must not be the enemy of the great, and the great here is the reduction in collisions.”
Hillary Cain, Toyota’s Director of Technology and Innovation Policy, emphasized how ridesharing services will help spur consumer acceptance. With ridesharing, consumers can use autonomous cars without having to actually own one, helping to allay fears and allow acculturalization prior to purchase decision. “If you give folks an opportunity to experience the technology… you can address some of the consumer-acceptance challenges,” Cain said, noting that the ridesharing space is where AVs will likely emerge in the near term.
Both Cain and Shapiro also addressed the additional hurdle of AV costs to consumers, noting that while they may be initially high, and potentially prohibitively expensive, the price will likely drop precipitously over time, just as other now-common safety features have in the past.
Bob Lange, a Principal and Corporate Vice President of Exponent, a former executive at General Motors, and a member of SAFE’s AV Safety Commission, pointed out that the industry’s pace in rolling out the technology will alleviate concerns. “Historically, motor vehicle safety technology has rolled out in a very predictable manner,” he said. “If the technologies are successful, the application evolves through increases over time.”
The panelists focused considerable attention on the appropriate role of the federal government, arguing for a balance between the need for market certainty and testing allowances while avoiding overly-burdensome regulations that could stymie innovation. Despite NHTSA’s initial guidelines issued in September, the federal government has a key ongoing role in creating a national testing framework to allow developers to test and deploy their wares, gaining critical insights and allowing the technology to be refined. Additionally, consumer acceptance is tied to the federal government’s role in developing an effective regulatory framework that is conducive to industry development and able to reassure the general public of the technology’s safety. SAFE’s Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety addressed this issue in detail in a report released earlier this year.
“There’s definitely a role for the federal government, and it’s rather urgent.”
Hilary Cain of Toyota urged the federal government to move fast and take a leading role in autonomous regulations. “There’s definitely a role for the federal government, and it’s rather urgent,” she said. “In the absence of a clear federal government role, what we’re seeing are states stepping in and filling what they see as a gap.”
Against this backdrop, a “patchwork of inconsistent state laws” is emerging, hindering industry’s ability to test vehicles in different locations and deploy them across state lines.
Carmakers embrace autonomy for ‘self-preservation,’ safety benefits
While consumers are expected to warm to self-driving vehicles over time, the auto industry has adapted quickly, embracing autonomous technology and driving innovation. Lange noted that precisely because the self-driving revolution is “a threat to the current existence of the business model,” automakers have had to adapt to the changing landscape by embracing the technology. He added: “If GM, Ford, and Toyota continue to run their businesses the way that they have for the past 100 years, it’s pretty certain that there’ll be another opportunistic player working in this space of mobility. It’s an enlightened action of self-preservation.”
Because the self-driving revolution is “a threat to the current existence of the business model,” automakers have had to adapt to the changing landscape by embracing the technology.
Beyond concerns over the bottom line, automakers have also shifted their strategies to help drive a revolution in U.S. road safety. “Way too many people die in car crashes every year,” Cain said. “This weighs on auto manufacturers very heavily… I think this is going to be the greatest revolution we’ll ever see in auto safety.”
Lange followed up, highlighting that he’s never seen “technology that is so comprehensively capable… to wipe out an entire swath of fatal crashes and serious injury crashes.”