Weekly Brief: Trump’s ‘America First’ Driverless Double Standards?

The US government slammed the brakes on one self-driving shuttle service last week.

Its move was in response to problems with the EasyMile service after one of its shuttles stopped unexpectedly in Columbus, Ohio, and sent an elderly woman flying from her seat. The woman was briefly hospitalized with minor injuries.

The company said the vehicle was traveling at just 7mph at the time of the accident and that it stopped short for no apparent reason. Columbus has two of the company’s shuttles in service as part of its Smart Columbus pilot, which is funded by a $50M grant from the US Department of Transportation. Smart Columbus grounded both of its shuttles immediately but the federal government also stepped in and decided to bar all 16 EasyMile shuttles across 10 states in the US from carrying passengers until more is understood about the accident.

Bravo to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for acting swiftly in the name of civilian safety. As much as autonomous-vehicle developers would like us to believe that self-driving cars, trucks and shuttles have advanced to the point of impressive competence, the truth is that they continue to make elementary mistakes. These mistakes can prove dangerous to other cars on the road and deadly to civilians, especially if they’re riding on board and not wearing seat belts, as was the case in 12-person shuttle in Columbus. Back in July 2019 another of the company’s shuttles had a similar accident in Utah that caused an elderly man to fall and hit his face.

Granted, these are both minor incidents. Given the tremendous potential for self-driving tech to reimagine transportation, increase efficiencies and possibly drastically reduce vehicle-related injuries and fatalities, self-driving pilots should be able to proceed but only with the highest level of caution and oversight and, maybe, with some seat belts? NHTSA was right to step in and bar passengers from EasyMile shuttles until more is understood.

The troubling part is that its actions here don’t align with its actions elsewhere. The Trump administration and the US Department of Transportation have signaled that they are “all in” for autonomous driving, in the words of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. They have sought to discourage regulations and give companies more latitude to test on public roads. The closest they’ve come to offering any real oversight is voluntary guidelines that autonomous-vehicle developers can comply with at their own choosing. Tesla’s Autopilot has been involved in numerous deadly crashes. A recent NHTSA investigation concluded that Tesla has been grossly inadequate when it comes to ensuring that its drivers use Autopilot correctly. Yet, Autopilot continues to operate in thousands of Tesla vehicles everyday, usually at highway speeds, with NHTSA’s blessings.

An EasyMile shuttle limping along at just over walking pace, on the other hand, has a slight hiccup and NHTSA swoops in within a matter of days to shut the operation down. The difference may be because company was operating under a federally funded program, whereas Tesla is an independent company. EasyMile is a foreign company headquartered in France, Tesla is an American company headquartered in Silicon Valley. Tesla is highly visible and beloved by its drivers and the financial markets. EasyMile is barely known. It may be easier for NHTSA to act boldly when it’s dealing with a side show but should that really be the case?

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