As vehicle makers race into future, whither road- and product-safety issues?

autonomouscrash-300x173The race to deal with the existential threat of climate change by making millions of vehicles smarter, more efficient, and environmentally friendly may be on a collision course with safety concerns.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, concerns are rising among consumer advocates that makers have zoomed ahead with entrepreneurial and engineering advancements in vehicles, even as expert regulators went AWOL in the era of the business-enthralled 45th president.

Whither the future of road- and product-safety in an era of autonomous or self-driving and all electric vehicles?

The biggest worries focus on the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) and Elon Musk, the gung-ho billionaire who has made a hallmark of his various business adventures the Silicon Valley adage to move fast and break things.

Although many companies around the globe may be putting the pedal to the metal with autonomous or self-driving technologies, Musk has gone full speed ahead in unmatched fashion, the newspaper reported:

“While other driverless car developers — including General Motors’ Cruise, Ford’s Argo AI, Amazon’s Zoox, Alphabet’s Waymo, and independent Aurora — all take an incremental, slow rollout approach with professional test drivers at the wheel, Tesla is ‘beta testing’ its driverless technology on public roads using its customers as test drivers. Musk said last month that Tesla cars will be able to fully drive themselves without human intervention on public roads by late this year. He’s been making similar promises since 2016. No driverless car expert or auto industry leader outside Tesla has said they think that’s possible.”

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the Detroit Bureau industry news site, told the Los Angeles Times that this aggressive approach may have consequences:

“’Can I say this off the record? No, let me say it on the record. I’m appalled by Tesla. They’re taking the smartphone approach: Put the tech out there and find out whether or not it works. It’s one thing to put out a new IOS [iPhone operating system] that caused problems with voice dictation. It’s another thing to have a problem moving 60 miles per hour.”

NHTSA, left by the last president for a long time without a director and run by its deputies, has not fulfilled its crucial function in bringing together key parties to set standards on autonomous technologies and appropriate safety standards, the newspaper reported. The agency also has not commented as Musk, with his usual flare, has pushed his company’s technologies and products in public, promoting the wonders of owners lounging in a back seat as a vehicle hurtles down the road.

Other federal agencies have jabbed NHTSA for its regulatory shortfalls, particularly as analysts have raised concerns that self-driving technologies have shown limits and that they can be interfered with, the newspaper reported:

“The National Transportation Safety Board — which investigates airplane, car, truck and train crashes but has no regulatory authority — blamed predictable abuse for a 2018 fatal crash in Mountain View, Calif., where an earlier version of Tesla’s semiautomated system, Autopilot, drove the car into a concrete abutment. ‘Government regulators have provided scant oversight’ of Autopilot and similar systems, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a 2020 hearing. Musk regularly issues statistics purporting to show that Autopilot and Full Self Driving are on balance safer than cars driven by humans alone. That could be, but even if Musk’s analysis is sound — several statisticians have said it is not — the data is proprietary to Tesla, and Tesla has declined to make even anonymized data available to university researchers for independent confirmation. Tesla could not be reached for comment — it disbanded its media relations department last year.”

If regulators want to avoid calamites that kill or injure motorists, passengers, or others in autonomous vehicle wrecks severe enough that they also cause such recriminations that the technologies get sidelined or even shelved, they could turn quickly to nonpartisan experts at places like the RAND Corporation. Researchers at nonpartisan, independent think tank have been digging into this field for decades and have urged lawmakers and regulators to get ahead of problems with the new wave of vehicles.

In my practice, I see the harms not only that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by car, motorcycle, and truck crashes, notably those involving aspects of the vehicles that prove to be dangerous or defective products.

With the prodding of pioneering consumer advocates like Ralph Nader, the nation for decades made strides in getting vehicles safer and better — with steering wheels that didn’t turn into bayonets, windshields that shattered into pebble-like remnants and not surgical knives, passenger restraints, and structural supports that surrounded and safeguarded passengers from greater injury.

But over time, other menaces have risen, including intoxication (with illicit drugs, prescription medications and booze and marijuana), distraction (especially with loud music and texting), sleeplessness, and more. The roads have become riskier for not only motorists but also bikers and pedestrians. With the coronavirus pandemic, we may be driving less than before. But the road toll has been grievous still, as drivers speed and go off in many and different reckless ways.

Technology has been a boon, as mentioned, in improving vehicles. But we all will rue the day when owners of expensive vehicles blame hardware or software issues, including supposed equipment advancements, for killing or crippling us or our loved ones. Look around in some of the pricier areas of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia — or anywhere in the nation, for that matter — and you will see the affluence that has embraced cutting-edge cars. Are we fully ready for them to navigate on their own or with minimal driver attention? Maybe if we need to even ask that question, we have a stark answer.

By the way, we also need regulatory vigilance about other problems developing in vehicles and attributed to technology. Climate change is pushing us away from carbon-burning fuels. Electric cars may sound great but their paths ahead are not problem free — including when their big batteries burst into flames. What must we know to stay safe with high-tech braking systems that also combust without warning, likely due not to the brake mechanisms but the electronic brains that supposedly make them better.

We’ve got work to do to keep our roads and vehicles safe — and if the politicians, lawmakers, and regulators can’t get it and keep it together to step up to the task, it may be the old-fashioned civil justice system, lawyers, and lawsuits that ensure that the innovators who speed and break things (and people) along the way also get held to account.

Photo credit: Screen shot from ABC News report on NTSB investigation of fatal wreck involving self-driving vehicle
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