Guest Opinion: More oversight necessary with driverless autos


Wherever we are --- If the reader is sitting in the office, having a lemonade or an extra cup of coffee to get the day’s work pace back up to speed, or driving down a nearby street chattering on the cellphone, or perhaps in a little less safety conscious manner paying no attention to surrounding traffic for an ‘important’ text message, here is an issue we should pay our dues about.

That is the current mindless manner entrepreneurial entities around the United States are bringing a life changing invention into the traffic ahead, behind, or perhaps in a more impactful way, on top of your old-style human driven car, autonomous vehicles. Congress is passing little or no measures improving the manners of development of the driverless auto, thousands of pounds of what may amount to spaghetti on the road, with one important difference. Sauce is not what accompanies the vehicle, the passenger, or passengers, are living breathing humans.

As is clear to all who have not been hiding in the South Pacific for the last five to ten years, the cargo either is not driving the vehicle, or paying little or no attention to the oversight autonomous vehicle manufacturers have left as their duty.

If my sources for the observation were simply my own love of driving to the point of driving 18-wheeler trucks from 2004 through 2007, and holding a drivers’ license of one form or another since 1972, and not wanting to lose the privilege to technology for autonomous transport vehicles which may well reduce the national total of traffic accident deaths at some point in the future....this writer would just punt and declare “Make your own judgment.”

But an article in a July issue of SCIENCE magazine makes the same opinion just expressed. The authors, a former head of the federal agency overseeing auto safety, and a very highly qualified auto safety research scientist back their stand with facts that will make even the most heartless potential moneymaker in the rapidly developing autonomous vehicle industry have sobering second thoughts.

Joan Claybrook, president emeritus, Public Citizen, Washington, DC, from 1977 to 1981 administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was the first named author of the technology development Policy Forum article “Autonomous vehicles:  No driver...no regulation?” The co-author was Shaun Kildare, director of research, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Washington, DC. The feature covers pages 36-37 of the magazine’s July 6 publication.

An especially attention grabbing and frankly chilling segment of the safety focus was a chart showing symbols representing the positions of a Uber autonomous test vehicle, with a human designated overseer in the car, and an “Object detected as a bicycle” which in the Uber self-driving system data playback showed 25 meters [approximately 32 yards or 95 feet] to the east of the AV position. About one-and-one-third seconds before impact, “the self-driving system determined that emergency braking was needed. However, the automatic braking system was not enabled, and no alert was provided to the driver who was supposed to be monitoring the system.”

The 6-lane street, Washington Ave, runs east - west, all the way from about one-third of a mile at the edge of the city limit of Tempe into Phoenix, seven miles to the center of one of the largest cities in America, and at the stretch has a 45-mile an hour speed limit frequently ignored. I’m speaking from experience of driving or bicycling the thoroughfare hundreds of times from the mid-1980’s to 2004, when I worked for or with the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest circulation newspaper.

The “detected bicycle” was being pushed by hand by a woman who was killed in the March 18 accident. Without declaring myself innocent of any bicycling or coming across (in more ways than one) of drivers as thoughtless or caution less as myself on a bicycle on Washington Ave, I will clarify that years ago I was hit while riding on Washington by an auto making a left turn on 48th St. Luckily, my injuries were minor, except for a bent bicycle wheel later repaired. The scary thing to me is the distance from 48th’s intersection, which is inside Phoenix, and where the woman walking her bike farther to the east is less than a mile, I estimate.

In any event, the further descriptions of AV accidents and manufacturing skating around the few or non-existent regulations of the technology’s development curve -- Congressionally passed exceptions to laws which have applied in some cases since 1966 to conventional, humanly driven transportation are even cited make a clear point.

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