Secretary Foxx’s Automated Vehicle Speech
Why no mention of the FAA or NTSB?
At a major press conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that:
“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken. This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.
In developing this Policy, we have consulted with industry leaders, experts in the field, state governments, the traveling public, and safety advocates, among others.”
The Washington Post reporters characterized the former mayor of Charlotte’s actions as follows:
“Federal officials say they intend to aggressively shape the emergence of driverless cars, increasing their role well beyond the traditional recalls of cars when they prove defective.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx spelled out that determination Monday in issuing a long-awaited policy paper that details 15 points he expects automakers to comply with as they rush to put autonomous cars on the road.
The specifics previewed Monday ask manufacturers to document for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) how and where they expect their vehicles to operate, how they will interact with other cars and the roadway, how they validate their testing, how they intend to protect privacy and prevent hacking, and how they would share data collected by onboard computers.”
The words “ask manufacturers to document” to NHTSA is Washington speak for an effort to require Detroit (and now Germany, Japan, Korea, etc.) and even more recently and relevantly Palo Alto, to prove the auto-worthiness (to coin a phrase) of their products BEFORE they sell the automated automobile controls to a driverless state. As the announcement explicitly states, heretofore, NHTSA’s power to deal with cars was limited to recalls. The Federal Automated Vehicles Policy Statement includes a long discussion of the NHTSA’s authority and an even longer appendix on the same subject. The DoT then included, by comparison or in admiration (?), of the FAA’s superior statutory basis for aircraft certification.
No doubt about that these future vehicles pose great safety benefits (driver error #1 risk?) and will stimulate all sorts of collateral economic benefits, but “aggressive” and “safety” do not lie comfortably in the same sentence. The Secretary, with the FAA, did a great job of pacing the drone rules in a similar situation.
He also, in a different setting earlier, recognized that the FAA and airline industry have advanced aviation safety through data-sharing. Secretary Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Rosekind brought those lessons to the automobile industry. The transfer of knowledge among the DoT’s authorities advanced safety. Driverless cars should learn more from the FAA’s experience.
In 1966 then Administrator Halaby suggested to President Johnson that the FAA, which reported directly to the White House, should be included in a unified Department so that a single executive could integrate the policies of the modes of Transportation. Thus was the DoT created (PL 89-670) “…necessary in the public interest and to assure the coordinated, effective administration of the transportation programs of the Federal Government; to facilitate the development and improvement of coordinated transportation service, to be provided by private enterprise to the maximum extent feasible; to encourage cooperation of Federal, State, and local governments, carriers, labor, and other interested parties toward the achievement of national transportation objectives.”
With that said, it is VERY curious why the Secretary’s announcement did not mention the FAA’s Traffic Collision Avoidance System experience. Considering that this existing program resolves potential mid-air’s in a 3 dimension, much faster operational environment, this highly acclaimed safety measure might have been referenced by the Secretary as a practical, implemented solution which has saved many passengers’ lives.
“Driverless cars” is a bit of a misnomer in that most automobiles may still have passengers, albeit the car’s person, sitting in the left hand seat, has training, health and proficiency licensed at dramatically lower standard than ANY airplane pilot. Most aircraft are further subject to positive control, i.e. the ATC computer and the highly professional staff track all of the aerial traffic.
Aircraft benefit from automation; computers control many of the aspects of flight, particularly on airliners. The safety advantages are exceptional, but the pilot is still there for many good reasons—systems are known to fail and the humans are expected to reassume manipulation of the aircraft controls.
Automation of the cockpit has had some hiccups. Pilots have seen their skills diminish due to their reliance on the computers. Research has identified aspects of this phenomenon which the FAA and industry are examining.
The NTSB, in investigating accidents, has voiced concerns about the man-machine interface in the cockpit and in its investigation of the fatal Tesla accident has worried about the technology in cars. Highway vehicles collision avoidance made its 2016 Most Wanted List.
The Secretary’s announcement might well have tempered, rather than excited, expectations for automobile automation. Given his purview of the FAA and his involvement with the NTSB, his message would have been more realistic in defining the risks by citing these relevant experiences. More importantly, by suggesting that the FAA and/or NTSB might be useful collateral assets to the auto manufacturers, the challenges might be minimized. Yes, the FAA’s certification record of processes and standards should help, but there’s more.