Consumers Remain Distant From Driverless Tipping Point

There is no true progress without resistance and there are fewer technologies progressing faster than assisted driving.

For proof, look no further than the driverless car pilot project General Motors has submitted for approval. In an unprecedented move the company aims to put a big, 5,000-strong fleet of zero-emission autonomous vehicles (ZEAVs) to the test over a two-year period across American public roads. To do so effectively, the giant manufacturer is seeking to win a set of exemptions from long-standing federal safety standards mandated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Testing will be rigorous. “Validating the safety of automated driving systems is challenging owing to the fact that the driving environment is extremely complex and dynamic,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering and industry relations for driver advocacy group American Association of Automobiles (AAA). “The ability of an automated vehicle to adjust to this dynamic environment is critical and testing for these scenarios is a challenge the industry faces as we move towards higher levels of automation,” he added.

Still, the exceptions GM is seeking aren’t small, insignificant details. For example, the ZEAVs will not have steering wheels, any type of gearshift mechanism, or foot pedals for braking and acceleration. In fact, GM has requested the maximum number of safety standard exemptions allowable by law for its project.

Numerous individuals and organizations are opposed to this. As required by federal law, GM’s proposal was made public and subject to public comment. The public certainly commented – the proposal received 45 critiques, more than a few of them critical. In one, president of the National Society of Professional Engineers, Michael Aitken, wrote that “several areas of General Motors’ petition lack the detail necessary to ensure that public health and safety will not be placed unnecessarily at risk”. Specifically, the organization is concerned with the vehicles’ decision-making process. It mentioned that classic dilemma in which a self-driving car must choose between hitting a pedestrian or avoiding him/her by performing a dangerous maneuver that risks causing injury to passengers.

When contacted for this story, GM pointed this writer to the company’s 2018 self-driving safety report and its direct response to the comments submitted about the petition (the response was filed after the close of the commenting period). GM framed its advocacy for the exemptions on legal grounds, pointing out that an automaker can legally be granted them in order to build a limited number of vehicles that don’t comply with all the standards, if its project qualifies for exemption status.

GM also addressed concerns about the self-driving vehicles’ abilities to react to challenging situations. “The paths necessary to accomplish these and other typical maneuvers are part of the ZEAV’s OEDR [object and event detection and response] and as such, are part of the overall evaluation GM has conducted to assess the ability of the ADS to control the ZEAV’s trajectory,” the company wrote.

The political environment in the US has swung away from the tighter regulation of the Obama administration to a looser one that seems to favor ambitious companies. On top of that, governmental bodies such as the Department of Transportation and the NHTSA itself have acknowledged the need to develop advanced vehicle technology, right up to Level 5 full autonomy. So, it’s possible GM will sail through by being granted most, or even all, of the exemptions it’s requested.

Even if it doesn’t, it will still have plenty of scope for testing. Jeremy Carlson, an automotive analyst at researcher IHS Markit, points out that: “GM and many others have autonomous vehicle test permits in the state of California, as well as other states and countries, and that has provided them with ample opportunity to develop the technology on the path to wider commercialization. While an exemption to FMVSS may make it easier to test or deploy more broadly across the country, several states have regulatory policies that support the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles today (and more will act in the future).”

Outside of certain exceptions (such as Waymo’s in certain patches of Northern California and other western locales), testing of AV functionalities tends to take place in closed facilities built for the purpose. There is almost zero risk to the public when vehicles are put through their paces in such locales. To do so on public roads carmakers will have to make a convincing case not only to regulators, but to the public at large, that the gains made through testing outweigh the safety concerns of the public regarding driverless vehicles.

There’s another key consideration here. Ultimately, the great mass of the public is the body that will receive all the sales pitches for AVs when they finally make it into dealerships. Automakers should do what they can to confer some level of trust in the technology in order for people to incorporate it into their lives. “Consumers are the end users of the product – whether they own an automated vehicle, or ride in one,” said AAA’s director of federal relations Megan Foster. “If the public doesn’t have confidence in the technology, they won’t use it.

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