States must work together to regulate driverless cars — NTSB chief

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States have to work together to build cohesive safety standards for driverless cars, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last week.

Hart —whose agency investigates civilian plane, train and other transportation accidents — said consistent regulations could protect drivers from conflicting laws. But that poses a challenge, he said: While Federal Aviation Administration sets rules for planes, he noted there isn’t a comparable entity for driverless cars.  

“It will not end up as a patchwork quilt … there’s going to have to be some uniformity. [Regulation] is going to be much more complicated than aviation,” Hart said. 

There also are lingering liability questions about driverless cars, he said — like who is responsible in a crash, what happens when the technology fails, and what kind of risk assessment is used to help the car respond to imminent danger? 

Putting these cars on the road introduces other variables, he said. He encouraged autonomous carmakers to consider installing “them-or-me” buttons in case passengers must choose between rear ending a large truck or driving on a sidewalk to avoid the accident, and an on-board recording device similar to a plane’s black box so makers can learn from accidents.

“There isn’t any single thing that scares me the most because the whole process is going to be very complicated, I think people are wildly underestimating the complexity of bringing automation into this system involving Joe Public,” he said. 

At the same time, Hart said self-driving cars carry some benefits. He thought driverless cars could encourage the sharing economy, allowing for carpooling and chauffeur services for people unable to drive. Driverless cars also could potentially increase safety, reliability and productivity, use resources more efficiently, he said.

“Driverless cars are coming and their potential for improvement is absolutely amazing. First and foremost, driverless cars can save many if not most of the 32,000 lives that are lost every year on our streets and highways,” Hart said.

While introducing Hart, National Press Club President Thomas Burr outlined why talking about self-driving cars was so important and emphasized that determining who is liable in case of an accident is key. 

“It’s a Wild, Wild West of a field that holds potential for improving highway safety,” he said. 

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