By Sheryl Gross-Glaser

AV Myths, Truths and Matters for Debate

March 10, 2020

When we focus on automated vehicles (AVs), there is so much disinformation, conflating of topics, and lack of consistent standards, that we must first distinguish apples from oranges.

Recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation findings following a fatal Tesla crash (PDF) and recent legislative proposals demonstrate that companies and the federal government need to operate very differently when dealing with the apples of partial automation and the oranges of full AVs. Let’s clear up some myths look at the safety implications that confusion causes. Most of the confusion results from news reports that place partial and full automation into one bucket – when they are quite different.

Myth #1: Every AV Is Alike

Truth: Saying that a vehicle is an AV only tells you that the vehicle is automated. This has nothing to do with the energy source (which may be conventional fuel or electric, for examples), the size of the vehicle, or type. An AV may be a full-sized bus, such as will be used in a pilot program in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland; it may be a car or a minivan, such as Waymo and other companies are testing with; it may be a delivery bot, such as the Nuro vehicle which the USDOT granted an exemption (from FMVSS); or it may be a slow-speed shuttle used on all or part of an established or new fixed route, such as the many May Mobility and Easy Mile shuttles being piloted in the US and in other countries.

Myth #2: Partial Automation = Full Automation

Truth: Partial automation requires an attentive driver at all times, while a fully AV would not require a driver on board. Partial automation also comes with a heightened driver propensity to stop paying attention. In the aviation industry, pilots receive special training to safely operate commercial aircraft with partial automation, whereas no driver is required to become licensed, certified, or prove completion of a course to demonstrate proficiency in operating a vehicle with partial automation.

The NTSB report upon investigation of a recent fatal Tesla crash finds that:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation has failed to thoroughly investigate the Tesla Autopilot design regarding the degree to which drivers are currently misusing the system, foreseeable consequences of continued use by drivers beyond the system’s operational design domain, and the effectiveness of the driver monitoring system in ensuring driver engagement.
  • The NTSB and other researchers have pointed out that human nature to become distracted and stop paying attention must be taken into account when drivers are not needed to constantly monitor the road and the vehicle’s operation.

Myth #3: All We Need Is Federal Regulation – Now

Truth: There are differences of opinion on whether, how, and to what extent to regulate partially automated vehicles and fully AVs.

At this time, we do not regulate partially automated vehicles in any different or additional way than conventional motor vehicles. Partially automated vehicles are permitted to operate on every public road. NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) have the authority to enforce existing regulations when it comes to any vehicle now permitted to be driven.

In contrast, regarding AVs, different countries, different states, and even different agencies within our federal government are each separately considering how to regulate AVs. In the US, every state law, executive order, and regulatory system is slightly or significantly different. Until AVs become more mature products it is debatable – and reasonable minds are in disagreement about – whether the US needs a national system and what that would look like.

Recent legislative sections that were shared with CTAA and other organizations, as well as AV legislation that almost passed during Congress’ last term, demonstrate an intent to build upon our current regulatory structure for motor vehicles. What is clear is that NHTSA and other modal administrations at the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) require staff with computer science expertise in order to adequately regulate and police transportation modes and vehicles of all types that increasingly depend on fast-changing technology to operate. CTAA favors funding for USDOT to increase its staff capacity to enforce current regulations, develop new ones, and provide adequate enforcement. Even today, we have computers on wheels operating throughout the country. Government capacity to keep a close eye on vehicles with emerging technologies on board is important to every person on the road.

Myth #4: Any Regulation Would Dampen Innovation

Truth: As we develop partial and full automation technology, test it, pilot it, and allow operations on our roads, we should welcome requirements that do not dampen the incentive to create and innovate.

For example, requiring all vehicles with a particular level of automation up through full automation to have event data recorders on board that provide data in a standard format would not impinge on innovation and it would produce valuable information when a crash occurs.

NTSB has previously requested that NHTSA require such equipment where partial automation exists. In the Tesla investigation, NTSB also referred to possible engineering workarounds that could alleviate some of the distracted driving problem that comes with the mix of human nature and partial automation.

[A]n engineering solution to the distracted driving problem is needed. Electronic device manufacturers have the capability to lock out highly distracting functions of portable electronic devices when being used by an operator while driving, and such a feature should be installed as a default setting on all devices.

If Tesla Inc. does not incorporate system safeguards that limit the use of the Autopilot system to those conditions for which it was designed, continued use of the system beyond its operational design domain is foreseeable and the risk for future crashes will remain.

As we continue to transport passengers in different types of vehicles, in different states, and with a mix of technologies, it is important to voice our excitement and concerns as we learn about and debate the safety, design, and operational issues involving partial and full automation. CTAA is here to light a path so that our members and the broader transportation community do not get lost in confusing terminology or in political ideology. It is also important for CTAA and its members to participate with Congress and with federal agencies, particularly the USDOT, to ensure that common sense is applied and that vulnerable travelers are not forgotten.

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The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.