Automated cars: Too much, too soon

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A self-driving car is damaged after crashing into an SUV during a crash test organised by a Swiss insurance company involving autonomous vehicles, in Duebendorf, Switzerland, 24 August 2017. The test simulated a cyber attack on a self-driving vehicle in which hackers had disabled the car's brakes. [EPA-EFE/CHRISTIAN MERZ]

Sunday’s fatal collision between an Uber autonomous car and a pedestrian in Arizona shows that the regulatory environment in the US, as well as in Europe, is not ready for fully autonomous vehicles, writes Antonio Avenoso.

Antonio Avenoso, Executive Director, European Transport Safety Council (ETSC).

It’s too soon to know the circumstances that led to Sunday’s fatal collision between an Uber autonomous car and a pedestrian in Arizona. The US National Transport Safety Board, the same body that investigates air crashes, will publish an independent report in time, and that should give some answers.

Their comprehensive report last year on a fatal collision involving a Tesla running in ‘Autopilot’ carried several important warnings about how a driver can become over reliant on automated driver assistance systems.

But the Uber case is different, and more disturbing. This was a prototype fully autonomous vehicle and, until Sunday, Uber had been planning to operate similar vehicles without a back-up driver within a year.

This timeframe is too much, too soon. The regulatory environment in the US, as well as in Europe, is not ready for fully autonomous vehicles to be let loose in areas where they interact with pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users.

The fact is that only technology companies and car manufacturers know how safe their systems are, and there is precious little regulatory oversight and, as yet, no formally agreed safety standards.

Companies, in the absence of guidance from regulators, have been happy to write the rules themselves. Mercedes-Benz has said that, in the event of a collision, the priority will be to save the driver. That has been the mantra of much of the car industry for years and vehicle occupant deaths have declined more rapidly than those of pedestrians and cyclists.

Governments and regulators have a responsibility to decide the rules of the road and set the standards that all manufacturers and operators should adhere to.

But here in Europe, despite a thankfully slower start for large scale tests of autonomous cars, we are not reassured that things have been moving in the right direction.

The EU recently approved an automated lane changing system for a mystery vehicle, despite unspecified safety concerns being raised. The whole process took place behind closed doors, and information on the testing carried out is not publicly available.

The UNECE, a United Nations body that sets regulatory standards for new vehicles that are often cut and pasted into EU legislation, is about to finalise rules for these types of lane change systems. But its working groups are dominated by industry representatives who have successfully argued against warnings being displayed to drivers, and have also agreed that it’s ok for the car to carry out a lane change without the system checking in front of the vehicle. Will drivers be aware of the limitations?  It’s not clear.  Even if the dealer shows you it works, what about other drivers who use the vehicle, or when the car is sold to someone else?

With both automated driving features, and fully autonomous vehicles, regulators and the industry need to respond to the Uber tragedy by taking a step back.  Independent driving tests need to be established which could include a combination of real world, track and computer simulations. And the technologies should be approved on a step-by-step basis for scenarios that are proven to be safe.

Motorway driving is the obvious place to start because of separation barriers, the lack of cross junctions and little or no interaction with vulnerable road users. This approval process also needs to be done with much more transparency than we have seen until now.

Independent investigations, similar to the one being carried out today in Arizona by the NTSB will also be essential to fully understand the causes of every collision involving automated systems.

In Europe, only Finland investigates every fatal road collision in this way. The Netherlands also has an independent safety board which is currently investigating the impact of automated systems on safety. Such programmes must be another pre-requisite for allowing automated cars on the road, either at European or national level, in order to learn from mistakes and prevent future deaths.

Arizona, with its almost complete lack of regulation for automated vehicles, represents the Wild West both literally and figuratively.  But the Wild West’s days were always numbered. I hope that last Sunday’s tragic death will be a wake-up call for proper regulation to come sooner rather than later.

Subscribe to our newsletters