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The Prospect of Self-Driving Cars and Preparing for A Regulatory Response

posted on Tue, Apr 12 2016 1:20 pm by Eric Schulman and Jon Vernick

From 1960 to 2012, vehicle safety technology like air bags and seat belts saved an estimated more than 600,000 lives. But there remain about 30,000 motor vehicle traffic crash deaths in the United States each year, including about 10,000 involving an alcohol impaired driver

A set of new technological innovations—combining to form the concept of autonomous or "self-driving" cars—could save many more lives, especially those involving intoxicated or other at-fault drivers. A self-driving car is one that uses technologies including sophisticated sensors, maps and software to operate without the need for driver intervention.

At the 2016 Raskin Symposium on Injury Prevention, held on March 22 at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, distinguished experts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Google, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discussed the technology and its implications in “Behind the Wheel: Public Health and Safety of Autonomous Cars.” The symposium was sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. A recording of the symposium is available here.

NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind presented the administration’s progress on nearing zero motor vehicle deaths, before transitioning into an overview on autonomous technology. Rosekind says the safety technology that enables cars to proactively avoid crashes is transformative. He also talked about NHTSA’s role in developing guidance and model state policy for the deployment of autonomous technology.

The symposium’s panelists Nat Beuse, NHTSA Associate Administrator; Chris Gerdes, Center for Automotive Research at Stanford Director; Ron Medford, Google Self-Driving Car Safety Director; and Bryan Reimer, MIT Research Scientist covered the technology in a comprehensive 360-degree approach, discussing everything from the technical challenges of implementing autonomous cars to the roles that trust and security play in the development and manufacture forecasts of deploying a self-driving fleet on our roads.

“It’s not just going to be about the automated vehicle being able to avoid a crash by itself, it’s being able to avoid a crash with other vehicles,” said Beuse. “Unless someone comes out with an innovative program where we all get new cars tomorrow, there will be a transition time. There are 265 million vehicles we’ll need to replace.”

Beyond speculation on the production and deployment of self-driving cars, the panelists continued the conversation by identifying possible regulatory efforts to ensure safe roadways. These efforts include examining new safety testing requirements and fail-safe functionality, new requirements for retrofitting cars with crash avoidance technology, and ensuring appropriate driver education and licensing.       

NHTSA currently promulgates a wide variety of federal motor vehicle safety standards, covering everything from crash avoidance technologies to crash worthiness and even post-crash standards for fuel system integrity. Driverless cars will undoubtedly force not only manufacturers to innovate and consumers to adapt, but also regulators to respond to a changing traffic environment.


This post was developed by Eric Schulman, M.P.S., Communications Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Jon Vernick, member of the Network for Public Health Law -- Eastern Region, Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Law and the Public’s Health and Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult an attorney in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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