Navigating a safer path for driverless cars
In its March 21 editorial (“Uber fatality drives home need for uniform safety rules”), the Globe laments the tragic death of Elaine Herzberg when she was struck by a driverless car in Tempe, Ariz. To avoid similar accidents, it says the operation of driverless cars should be governed by uniform federal standards. Consistent federal rules may help reduce the risks of testing autonomous vehicles, but there are other urgent steps we should take to address what the Globe calls “an alarmingly rising number of auto deaths.”
According to the National Safety Council, driver distraction and an increase in miles traveled are the prime causes of increased auto deaths. Rather than wait for the hypothetical day when drivers may be rendered superfluous, wouldn’t it be great if Congress had the courage to address today’s traffic hazards?
A nationwide ban on the use of hand-held devices would go a long way toward keeping drivers’ attention focused on the road. A long-overdue increase in the federal gas tax, unchanged since 1993, would give travelers an incentive to rein in unnecessary driving while freeing up funds to maintain our crumbling road systems. Priority funding for mass transit would help ensure that tens of millions of Americans have a safer, less-polluting alternative.
It remains to be seen whether autonomous vehicles someday will save thousands of lives now lost to road accidents, as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao claims. Meanwhile, there’s plenty we can do to make American mobility safer and more environmentally sustainable.
The writer is a nonresident senior research fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.
Cry for more federal regulation is wrong response to tragic fatality
The editorial calling for additional federal regulation of autonomous vehicles was the customary knee-jerk reaction, this time to a tragic fatal pedestrian accident in Tempe, Ariz. As the Globe noted, the Tempe police chief suggested that a human operator most likely could not have avoided the collision.
Autonomous vehicles could be 10 times safer than human drivers. About 40,000 Americans are killed in auto accidents annually, including 6,000 pedestrians. Of these accidents, 90 percent are caused by human errors, such as driving under the influence, distracted driving, and speeding. An autonomous vehicle’s many sensors enable it to see everything around it, as well as far ahead; it processes this data, and reacts in fractions of a second, much faster than humans.
Autonomous vehicles also learn from an enormous experience base of hundreds of millions of miles driven and billions of miles in simulated driving, whereas humans only learn from their own experience.
Cases like this tragic recent example will be used to improve the software to interpret the likelihood that blurry figures coming out of the shadows might walk directly in front of the vehicle. Companies developing autonomous vehicles will make them increasingly safer because they are competent and responsible, not because they need increased government regulation.
Michael E. McGrath