NHTSA Head Is Bullish On Autonomous Cars

You might think that the head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is just waiting to slap draconian restrictions on the use of semi-autonomous driving systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, especially after news broke that the system failed to save the life of Joshua Brown in May. Brown was driving his Tesla Model S with Autopilot enabled on a Florida highway when it crashed into the side of a tractor trailer, shearing off the roof of the car and killing Brown.

Tesla Autopilot for autonomous cars

Tesla says the Autopilot failed to notice the trailer because of bright sunshine reflecting of its white painted sides. Like the villagers in Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, the press and Congress have been howling for a leash to be put on the system until it is “perfected.” Musk is having none of it and neither is Mark Rosekind, the head of the NHTSA. He told the Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco this week, “No one incident will stop the NHTSA from promoting highly automated driving development.”

He went on to say the government would still work to promote self driving cars by providing a framework to support the development of autonomous technology, even though his agency has opened an investigation into the fatal crash. His reasoning is that more than 90% of the 32,000 highway fatalities in the US each year are caused by driver error (often associated with poor decisions while under the influence of alcohol). He reasons that autonomous driving systems could potentially 30,000 or more lives per year.

Rosekind hinted that NHTSA was willing to accept imperfect technology during development of highly automated driving because of its life saving potential. But he cautioned that his agency would not accept technology that is merely as safe as human drivers. On average, one person is killed on American roads for every 90,000,000 miles of driving. The Brown fatality occurred after 130,000,000 miles of driving on Autopilot. That means that statistically, Autopilot is already nearly 50% safer than relying on human skill.

Rosekind’s words must be comforting to Musk and Tesla as they continue to push forward with the development of autonomous technology. In his latest Master Plan Part Deux blog post, Musk was extremely direct about why Tesla is continuing to make Autopilot available to its customers. “[W]hen used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible (emphasis added) to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.” Take THAT, Consumer Reports!

Source: CNET Road Show  Photo credit: Teslarati

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.