The autonomous vehicle debate is heating up. There are advocates for and against near term widespread adoption. Recently, the National Society of Professional Engineers weighed in with industry and policy guidance. The implications of this guidance are far reaching. Let’s discuss.
Initially, fully autonomous vehicles were entirely a pipe dream. I’m remembering Kit from Night Rider. Then, as the necessary technologies developed, the early adopters began to get properly excited. A variety of sensors and controls began to emerge. Back up cameras, tire pressure sensors, and traction control all moved the needle forward along with so many other advancements. Near(ish) term manufacture and distribution of fully autonomous vehicles has become inevitable. Looking simply at technical capabilities, this seems entirely appropriate. However, its quickly becoming apparent that there are so many other factors to consider.
Does there need to be a back up human driver? Does that driver need to be present in the car or could they be a remote operator monitoring several cars at once? Should a car imperil its own occupants to preserve the safety of those outside the car? Are accidents likely to increase or decrease? Will accident severity increase or decrease? What are the appropriate vehicle safety features to add or remove in light of these predictions? Questions like this have boiled over into heated debates in places like California as we try to get a hold of the situation. Industry, consumers, and policy makers have been hashing this all out. Now, a team of professional engineers at the national level has taken the time carefully consider the topic and issue a formal press release and presentation from NSPE.
There are 12 key points in the NSPE guidance. They are all important, but they can be summarized as follows. Increased technical capabilities are great, but public safety must be the real driver behind all decisions regarding autonomous vehicles. It might seem great to let your car drive you from A to B while you sleep or are intoxicated. Perhaps shipping vehicles could make deliveries without a paid employee. There are so many ways that fully driverless vehicles might seem attractive depending on your specific needs. We’re just not there yet.
Essential parts of the NSPE guidance involve a partnership between industry and regulators. Standards for risk assessment and reporting are required. Compliance with investigations must be mandated. All present safety features must be maintained. A universal set of maps must be used between all vehicles. Anti-hacking technology must be proven. Other safety features are also mentioned, and I agree that these are all necessary.
As you can imagine, this is likely to become a political issue. Some will argue that industry is best suited to handle this without oversight. Others will argue for heavy regulation. However, the NSPE guidance is not political. Professional engineers’ code of ethics requires the prioritization of public safety before any other personal or professional interest. These guidelines are all necessary to keep the public safe. We must release this new technology into the world in a highly controlled manner. As it matures, we’ll be able to use data rather than speculation to adjust the rules as necessary. None of this dashes the dreams of the enthusiasts. Rather, it ensures that autonomous vehicle adoption and proliferation will proceed unencumbered by safety concerns or poor performance. We’ve waited this long. A slightly slower roll out won’t kill anyone!