NHTSA Administrator Talks Autonomous Driving

MIT Transportation Event

Remember all the recall-related headlines of the past two years? Those manufacturer errors account for only about 2% of deaths on the road. Conversely, 94% of lives lost in motor-vehicle accidents are due to human error. These are startling numbers, which lead to sobering realizations. Back in 1970, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was formed to study our highways and roads in an effort to minimize the risks associated with driving. As technology has advanced, this administration’s scope and responsibilities have advanced as well. Dr. Mark Rosekind, the current NHTSA Administrator, spoke with Bryan Reimer, of the New England University Transportation Center and MIT’s AgeLab, regarding the NHTSA’s role in the current and future state of autonomous driving technology.

At 16, most of us are learning to drive before our brains have finished forming. That isn’t to say that we should learn to drive later in life, or that we shouldn’t be driving at all. It’s simply an observation; we’re human, and as such, we are forced to overcome our human limitations. This truth is evident in motorsports: we aren’t designed to navigate traffic at 200 miles per hour, but through practice, (relatively) controlled environments, and advanced technology, the humans we know as Formula 1 drivers are capable of doing just that.

Outside of a few exceptions (Le Mans, France, and Monte Carlo, Monaco, spring to mind), public roads are not home to 200-mph speeds — but they’re not home to too many Formula 1 drivers. So, in order to overcome the challenges and dangers of driving, many manufacturers have turned to autonomous-driving technology. Nonetheless, 32,675 people died in motor-vehicle accidents in 2014, and the early projections for 2015 indicate an even higher number pending for 2015. Rosekind identified the “four Ds” as key areas of NHTSA attention: driving under the influence of drugs, driving drunk, distracted driving, and driving while drowsy.

With an ultimate goal of zero deaths due to motor-vehicle accidents, Rosekind and the NHTSA are committed to accelerating safety-oriented technology. Rather than replacing features in cars, the NHTSA believes that automakers should be driven to layer technology — don’t remove the seatbelts from the 2016 Volkswagen Passat, for instance, but instead layer that technology with autonomous emergency braking. Furthermore, Rosekind made it very clear: safety technology should not be available exclusively in expensive, high-end trims. Technology like autonomous emergency braking needs to be available as standard equipment.

Further, while sensor-based technology like adaptive cruise control or Tesla’s Autopilot are certainly leaps and bounds beyond the tried and true “look for the taillights and step on the fat pedal” method, the long game in autonomous technology will lie in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. This kind of awareness extends the range of a car’s autonomy beyond an immediate sphere and will allow computers to register and recognize dangerous situations farther down the road.

Currently, there are somewhere around 265 million cars on the road, with an average age of roughly 11.4 years. Arriving at the ultimate goal of zero deaths will take a long time — it will be 20 to 30 years before the current fleet of cars comes close to turning over, and retrofitting the current fleet with autonomous-driving technology represents a nearly impossible task. The NHTSA has recently said artificial intelligence (such as that directing Google’s self-driving prototypes), rather than the human passengers, can be legally considered the driver. To our relief, however, when asked if he could imagine the government outlawing non-driverless cars, Rosekind commented, “I’m not sure we’ll get there.”

Are you ready to welcome self-driving cars on our roads?

-Matt Smith

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