Posted: September 9, 2016
When Ford President Mark Fields announced this month that his company would produce a driverless car with no steering wheel and no gas pedal, in five years, he did not mince words. He said "Driverless cars would have as significant an impact on society as Ford's moving assembly line did 100 years ago."
A truly driverless car by Labor Day weekend of 2021 seems like a tall order, but autonomous technologies are already being added to existing cars at breakneck speed and the early days suggest they are making cars safer. The much-publicized fatal accident in May involving Tesla on "auto-pilot" was the first in 130 million miles traveled by other Teslas using the same, poorly-named function.
Those opposed to the new technology say driverless vehicles are a marketing marvel, but it's not a safety miracle as the auto industry and its captive regulator, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) claim. NHTSA was established by Congress in 1966, after lawmakers concluded that voluntary auto safety standards had largely failed and that mandatory ones were necessary. "NHTSA's deference to industry initiatives in lieu of safety standards represents an abdication of regulatory responsibilities that is unprecedented," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety.
Those in favor of the new legislation say Washington should resist the temptation to slap onerous regulations on a promising industry. At the same time, producers of driverless cars would be well-advised to proceed with caution. Good too far, too fast, will inevitably create a backlash against the technology.
The prospect of driverless cares poses all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Those who are sight-impaired or otherwise unable to drive would find new mobility. Traffic flows could be better managed as cars would automatically be routed to the least congested routes. And people with modest automotive needs could simply summon rides when needed, rather than wasting money on cars that spend much of their time parked in driveways.
For years, those concerned about how the world around them is changing have focused most of their ire on trade and immigration, rather than on the creative destruction of technology.
Although taxis, Uber and Lyft drivers would not look forward to the day, along with long-haul truckers, would certainly join the ranks of the aggrieved, many Americans equate driverless cars with a reduction in safety. They generally trust their own instincts and judgment, and reason that if they are in control, they can limit their risks.