Who is in the Driver’s Seat? 

Posted on June 05, 2018
Driverless cars conjure up images of relaxing in traffic while your car chauffeurs you home.  Companies are racing to develop automated vehicle technologies, and cars like this may be just around the corner. But are they safe? Today’s WatchBlog takes a look at our recent report on what the federal government is doing to address safety and other challenges posed by these emerging technologies. How autonomous are automated vehicles? Automated vehicles range from those that assist with some driving tasks, like adjusting speed in response to other objects on the road, to fully self-driving cars. The U.S. Department of Transportation, the lead federal agency for vehicle safety, has adopted a 6-level categorization of driving automation, ranging from zero assistance to a system that performs all the needed tasks in all conditions. Figure showing levels of driving automation used by Department of Transportation Vehicles with Level 1 and Level 2 automation—such as adaptive cruise control or lane departure assistance and automated parking—are already on the road.  Automakers and technology firms are investing heavily in developing Levels 3, 4, and 5 vehicles, which will perform with increasing autonomy. These vehicles are currently on public roads in test scenarios and some automakers plan to release cars that control all aspects of driving in certain conditions as early as 2021. Promises and perils The Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has calculated that 94% of all crashes are tied to human error. Many observers believe automated vehicle technologies could save lives by reducing these errors and could offer other benefits as well, such as reducing traffic congestion and expanding mobility for people with physical limitations. For these benefits to be realized, policymakers must confront an array of challenges, including:
  • assuring that automated vehicles interact safely with other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists;
  • adapting infrastructure to automated vehicles; and
  • addressing questions about how data generated by automated vehicles can be used, an issue explored in another report on vehicle data privacy.
Figure showing examples of potential driving scenarios that could pose policy challenges related to automated vehicles Steering the future of driverless cars The Department of Transportation has made some initial efforts to address these challenges by:
  • issuing guidance in 2017 that provides technical assistance for states and suggests a framework for industry-led safety training, and
  • conducting defect investigations and pursuing recalls of some driver-assistance technologies through its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But, we found that the Department of Transportation does not have a comprehensive plan that sets clear goals, establishes when and how it will act, or indicates how it will monitor progress. Without such a plan, it may miss the opportunity to organize, prioritize, and clearly monitor the progress of its many efforts to oversee and advance the safe development, testing, and deployment of automated vehicle technology.  We recommended that Transportation develop a comprehensive plan for its initiatives related to automated vehicles, and it concurred. So there are still some miles to go before you’ll be able to get behind the wheel, flip open that magazine and let your car safely chauffeur you home from work. To learn more, check out our full report.