Consumer Watchdog Calls on NHTSA to Mandate Manual Control on Autonomous Vehicles on Public Safety Grounds

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By James Hodgson | 4Q 2015 | IN-3903

This ABI Insight analyzes Consumer Watchdog's worries about autonomous vehicles.

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Rules of the Road


The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in the process of revaluating its policy governing the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads. This is the result of an order from U.S. Transport Secretary Tony Foxx to update the policy to take into account advancements in technology since the first iteration was devised in 2013, and to hasten the development of a potentially life-saving innovation.

In response, the U.S. Consumer Watchdog has called on NHSTA to “put public safety first,” and has suggested two key policies to achieve this: require all autonomous prototypes to be equipped with all of the passive safety measures currently mandated on cars, and have all autonomous prototypes fitted with the conventional steering wheel and pedals, such that the driver is always in ultimate control. 

Paved with Good Intentions


It is fair to say that any stakeholder in the emerging autonomous vehicle market would agree with Consumer Watchdog that public safety should be paramount when forming the rules that govern both the testing and the general use of autonomous vehicles on the road. However, there is a strong argument that the specific recommendations that Consumer Watchdog has made would have the opposite effect to the one it has intended.

Firstly, conventional vehicle controls (steering wheel, pedals, etc.) have been accepted for many years as the best interface for a human driver who is in constant control of the vehicle. However, there is considerable skepticism about the viability of traditional controls in autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. These interfaces simply were not designed to be suddenly employed while the vehicle is in motion. Insisting that autonomous testing vehicles continue to be equipped with steering wheels and pedals will stunt the development of the intuitive and contextual HMI that will be needed to manage safe transition of control in semi-autonomous vehicles. Indeed, as connected and autonomous vehicles begin to make maneuvers, which no human driver would be able to execute, the presence of traditional controls could prove highly dangerous, if vehicle users should scramble to assume control of a vehicle in the middle of a complex maneuver.

Secondly, Consumer Watchdog seems to emphasize a tension between vehicle autonomy and public safety which does not exist – certainly not in the long run. Depending on how much one assigns significance to road conditions, drivers are responsible for at least 70% of all traffic accidents, with the upper-bound of 93% to 95% being frequently quoted in press articles related to autonomous driving. The autonomous systems of future vehicles can be considered as a combination of two separate systems. Firstly, there will be the autonomous navigation system – the system which manages the day to day execution of maneuvers required to take the vehicle from A to B: overtaking, navigating intersections, etc. Autonomous navigation has been the subject of much testing by a variety of OEMs and newcomers to the automotive market in multiple regions. This system will need to be supplemented by an autonomous emergency control system, responsible for performing the extraordinary braking and swerving necessary to avoid collisions on an irregular basis. No doubt the latter system will be born out of the present AEB systems, and the Emergency Steering Assistants that is currently under development, but it will still require large scale testing in real world environments, just as autonomous navigation has, in order to be made fit for purpose. But so long as autonomous vehicle trials require a trained human driver to be present, the result can only be a refined autonomous navigation system, which still relies heavily on a disengaged and distracted driver for emergency collision avoidance.

Autonomy is No Panacea


It’s important not to get too bullish with autonomous vehicles, nor to overestimate their contribution to public safety – significant though it may be. Even if we assume the maximum degree of human error in accidents suggested by the statistics, a vehicle fleet comprised exclusively of autonomous vehicles will still result in 5% of the accidents which occur today, all other things remaining equal. Thus, Consumer Watchdog’s suggestion that autonomous vehicles should retain the same passive safety features which are mandated on existing consumer vehicles is sound.