The industry’s second chance to be first in safety

John Creamer, left, is Managing Director of GlobalAutoRegs, an advisory service on global regulatory affairs. Daniel Malone is an attorney with the Detroit-based law firm Butzel Long.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the automotive industry failed to respond to rising concern in Washington over traffic deaths. The industry did fund public awareness campaigns on safe driving. Manufacturers did collaborate through the Society of Automotive Engineers on safety standards.

Certainly, a number of innovations were widely deployed to improve vehicle handling and performance. Nonetheless, even as Congress held hearings on vehicle design safety and enacted limited measures to set standards, automakers remained divided over pushing consumers to accept the costs of safety.

This failure to address safety on an industrywide basis slowed the deployment of many proven technologies.

In 1966, Congress acted to correct this failure of the free market to drive improvements in road safety. In short, government regulators would research the causes of injuries in vehicle crashes, identify available countermeasures, and mandate their installation on new vehicles via the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Automakers need not worry about competitive impact because car buyers would have no choice but to accept the additional features.

During the policy debates, consumer safety advocates epitomized by Ralph Nader raised public awareness, but they also hammered the idea into the American psyche that car manufacturers were not trustworthy. Unaware of automotive engineers’ contributions to safety (more than half of the first Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards would be based on Society of Automotive Engineers standards), the public accepted the argument that automakers ignore safety in a quest for profits. This distrust of automakers runs deep, to the point where even today the public generally believes Google or Apple are more likely to innovate in car safety than GM or Ford.

The automotive industry, however, has been handed an opportunity to change this narrative. In doing so, the industry may also fundamentally recast — for the better — the way in which vehicles and road safety are regulated in the United States.

With the release of “Automated Driving Systems 2.0: A Vision for Safety,” the Department of Transportation has essentially left the short-term regulation of advanced automated driving systems to manufacturers. Moreover, even though legislation moving through Congress would direct the Department of Transportation to initiate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for automated systems, the fact is the U.S. regulatory system was not built for this purpose.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards were created to correct a market failure, not to regulate safety features pushed by industry and fueled by consumer demand.

You’d be hard pressed to come up with any other topic in the automotive firmament to surpass popular interest in automated features that make driving easier and safer. No action is needed to ensure that automated driving systems will be installed in new cars. In this respect, it makes perfect sense that the Department of Transportation would have doubts over the application of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to this situation.

What is needed, however, is preventative action in the sense of avoiding mistakes in the deployment of automated driving technologies. Acceptance of automation is above all an issue of trust. Consumers will buy and use automated features as long as they trust those features. However, research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan and J.D. Power all point toward rising levels of public doubt over the safety of high levels of automation.

Moreover, given the diverse levels and system configurations, the potential for misuse — whether from driver overreliance, confusion or abuse — is a clear and present danger. Therefore, future road safety will depend upon how automakers choose to address the 15 voluntary criteria defined in the Department of Transportation’s automated driving policy and, critically, on how well the industry standardizes its responses.

Make no mistake, automated driving systems will be regulated regardless of American decisions. Outside the U.S., most automotive nations are working through regulations to govern the approval of automated driving systems. We already have international regulations addressing automatic braking, corrective steering and lane keeping. Further standards are nearing completion on lane changing and emergency steering functions. Work has been underway for some time on cybersecurity and software controls. The issue is not whether automation will be regulated but how.

Right now, the automotive industry has an opportunity to promote reform of the U.S. regulatory system toward a more efficient, effective and collaborative system. By forcefully accepting the lead in establishing industrywide specifications, test procedures and performance requirements for the various automated driving technologies, aligned with standards developed elsewhere, the industry can respond to the Department of Transportation’s call for action. At the same time, the industry can demonstrate to Congress and other policymakers — and to the nation —its ability to safeguard the public interest during this time of rapid technological change.

Sixty years ago, automakers failed to collaborate on minimum levels for vehicle safety. A decade later, the industry found itself subject to government supervision and tarred with a reputation for callousness.

Today, the advent of automated driving systems calls basic tenets of the regulatory system into question.

In response, the Department of Transportation has opened a door to industry leadership and more effective interaction with NHTSA in ensuring safety. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.