A strong hand needed for promise of self-driving vehicles to be realized

We're losing ground. For the first time in five decades, more Americans have died in car crashes this past year than the year before-35,092 to be exact. That's a 7.2 percent increase in deaths from 2014. The last single-year increase of this magnitude was in 1966. Against this backdrop, a 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report found that human error is "responsible for about 94 percent of crashes in the US."

Most of us have heard by now about autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars. Tech companies and automakers are investing heavily in these technologies, including Ford, Google, GM, Volvo, Tesla, Uber, and BMW. The innovations include cameras and sensors mounted around the car; some can see 200 yards at 360 degrees. That's like the distance of two football fields from every direction, an exciting and revolutionary prospect. But, there's a caveat I'll get to shortly.

Let's consider the crash prevention and lifesaving potential. In 2014, 9,967 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. What if we could eliminate car accidents caused by intoxicated or fatigued drivers? Or the 846 fatalities connected to drowsy-driving? Or distracted driving, which, with our mobile devices, is a growing problem causing an estimated one in five crashes.

What if the 1.23 million deer-vehicle collisions that occur each year could be prevented by a camera that can see much farther than naked eye and avoid a collision?

In 2013, pedestrian deaths in the United States totaled 4,735. What if a computer-programmed car could anticipate pedestrians and avoid striking them?

In 2014, 1,717 young drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 died in car crashes. How incredible it would be to save those precious young lives by literally steering them out of harm's way or prohibiting them from driving at careless speeds--both are things that an autonomous car can do.

In 2014, 4,295 motorcyclists and 720 bicyclists were killed in crashes, most in collisions with cars. A camera mounted on a vehicle's roof can detect those two-wheelers that drivers might not see.

Here's another scenario: at least 37 children have died this year in hot cars, and no automaker has adopted technology to stop these awful deaths. Imagine it's a 90-degree-day in Florida, and you've driven to work. Lost in thought, you forgot that your toddler is in the back seat. You were supposed to drop her at day care. You're about to lock your car and go into the office. But no, it won't lock, instead you get a warning: someone is still in the car!

And what about consumers with disabilities and older Americans gaining the freedom and independence that autonomous vehicles can deliver?

These are but a few of earth-shattering possibilities that autonomous cars can deliver. But, back to the caveat.

I agree with President Obama that "the progress we've seen in automated vehicles over the past several years shows what our country is capable of."

The problem is that the auto industry has-at best-a checkered past. Last year, 51 million cars were under recall. We've seen faulty ignition switches, defective airbags, unintended acceleration, phony emissions results-the list goes on. Hardly a confidence-builder in safety and reliability!
Then there are computer crashes and malicious hackers. Look at the Delta Airlines debacle this summer that grounded its entire fleet for two days. If things go massively wrong, all this excitement and promise could set us back for years.

That's why we need to ensure that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the expertise to oversee this nascent industry. Congress must beef up NHTSA's budget and direct the agency to hire software engineers and robotics experts who can oversee this new endeavor without quashing its promise for saving lives. We need an incremental approach.

And consumer advocates must also have a seat at the table throughout the process. Strong standards will actually help industry by reassuring people that companies are not using them as crash dummies for software still in the "beta" phase.

And companies need to be transparent with NHTSA and the public when things go wrong and about how they are responding. Consumers must have the confidence that government and industry have the experience, expertise, and commitment to put their safety first.
If we follow this careful path, we can ensure that autonomous vehicles deliver on the promise of saving lives and increasing mobility for all Americans.