Legislators must balance safety, innovation with self driving cars

Tejas Choudhary

There is something distinctly familiar about the anxiety we feel about autonomous vehicles taking over the streets. Either the reluctance to give up control or the fear that robots might behave in an unexpected manner, something makes us question every solution that self-driving cars present. It isn’t really a surprise, then, that the recent tragic accidents involving autonomous vehicles have further hampered the confidence in allowing cameras and codes to drive our kids to school.

The challenges and concerns with autonomous vehicles are clear. Less clear, however, is the potential they possess to save thousands of lives and billions in cost. Countless studies and reports have shown the various benefits that autonomous vehicles would have on both the economy and the quality of life. Self-driving cars are expected to improve the fuel economy by over 30 percent and decrease congestion by up to 13 percent. They can also help save millions of lives. 

In the United States alone, an average of 92 people die from car crashes every day. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to cut the number by 99 percent. The recent accident involving Tesla’s model S, although tragic, was the first such incident in over 130 million miles that Teslas have driven on autopilot. Google reports that in over a million miles that its self-driving car has driven, its only accident was down to a human error from another vehicle.

The evolution of self-driving technology has been dramatic, from science fiction to reality in the span of under a decade. But despite the many advancements, the biggest challenge for self-driving cars is what lies ahead. Maintaining the research momentum and convincing the people to trust the vehicles will be far bigger challenges to tackle. It is one thing to defy odds and create a marvel, but it will take something else entirely to take it from the lab to the road. 

Automakers and state agencies have realized that we stand on the cusp of a major change. They must also realize that it will take continued and strategic efforts to bring about that change. States need to act quickly and ensure that the vehicles do not face a regulation logjam. They must ensure that untested and underdeveloped technologies don’t harm people and property.  Providing innovators with specified safe-testing zones where autonomous vehicles could be tested without fear of fatalities would encourage many tests and help gather more useful data.

Kara Kockelman, a professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering who specializes in transportation engineering, believes that Texas has been doing its part. 

“Texas is in a good position: it is not limiting self-driving vehicles while allowing national agents to take the lead, so that states with different laws don’t stymie a single, national standard,” Kockelman said. “It is funding valuable research, including demonstrations. And Texas cities are cultivating relationships with AV providers like Google to ensure we stay in a lead position.” 

Accidents like the recent tragedies can and should be avoided, but it is also important that caution doesn’t stymie innovation. Texas lawmakers and the department of transportation must work together to define regulations for the in-progress technology. The tension between regulating and cultivating transportation innovation should be resolved quickly. The state must also attempt to educate the public about how the technology might affect their lives. 

Accidents and errors will definitely impel auto manufacturers to exercise more caution. Technology, as always, will scale the learning curve. As self-driving cars collectively learn from their mistakes, the technology will keep evolving. It is crucial, then, that humans keep pace with it. 

Choudhary is a finance and civil engineering junior from Mumbai.