Source: Frank Cotham/The New Yorker
This past week, I attended the fourth annual Governance of Emerging Technologies Conference at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law. The symposium’s format included a number of sessions that ran concurrently, so I ended up having to miss several presentations that I wanted to see. But the ones I did manage to catch were very informative. Here are some thoughts.
The conference was a sobering reminder of why AI is not a major topic on the agenda of governments and international organizations around the world: there are a whole lot of emerging technologies posing new ethical questions and creating new sources of risk. Nanotechnology, bioengineering, and the “Internet of Things” all are raising new issues that policymakers must analyze. To make matters worse, governments the world over are not even acting with the necessary urgency on comparatively longstanding sources of catastrophic risk such as climate change, global financial security, political and social instability in the Middle East, and both civil and military nuclear security. So it shouldn’t be surprising that AI is not at the top of the agenda in Washington, Brussels, Beijing, or anywhere else outside Silicon Valley, and there is no obvious way to make AI-writ-large a higher policy priority in the immediate future without engaging in disingenuous scaremongering.
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This is the final segment in a three-part series on NHTSA and autonomous vehicles. The first two parts can be read here and here.
So what went down at NHTSA’s two public hearings? I could not find video of the first hearing, which was held in Washington DC, and so I’ve relied on press reports of the goings-on at that initial hearing. The full video of the second hearing, which was held in Silicon Valley, is available on YouTube.
Most of the speakers at these two hearings were representatives of tech and automotive industry companies, trade organizations, and disability advocacy groups who touted the promise and benefits that AV technologies will bring. Already, vehicles with automated features have a level of situational awareness that even the most alert human driver could never hope to match. Sensors and cameras can detect everything that is going on around the vehicle in every direction–and AI systems can ‘focus’ on all that information more-or-less simultaneously. Human drivers, by contrast, have a limited field of vision and have trouble maintaining awareness of everything that is going on even in that narrow field.
AI drivers also won’t get drunk, get tired, or text while driving. (Well, actually they could send texts while driving, but unlike with humans, doing so would not hinder their ability to safely operate a vehicle). Their reaction time can make human drivers look like sloths. Perhaps most significantly, they could give people with physical disabilities the ability to commute and travel without the need to rely on other people to drive them. If you follow developments in the field, then all of that is old news–but that does not make it any less enticing.
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This is part 2 of a series on NHTSA and Autonomous Vehicles. Part 1, published May 8, discussed the 5 levels of automation that NHTSA established, with Level 0 being a completely human controlled car and Level 4 being a vehicle that is capable of completely autonomous operation on the roads. Part 3 discusses NHTSA’s April 2016 public hearings on the subject.
I must confess that I am very much an optimist about the promise of Level 4 vehicles–and not just because I really, really love the idea of having the ability to do stuff on my commute to work without having to scramble for one of the 2 good seats on a Portland bus (yes, there are always only 2). The potential benefits that autonomous vehicles could bring are already well-publicized, so I won’t spend much time rehashing them here. Suffice it to say, in addition to the added convenience of AVs, such vehicles should prove to be far safer than vehicles controlled by human drivers and would provide persons with physical disabilities with a much greater ability to get around without having to rely on other people.
But while I am optimistic about the benefits of Level 4 vehicles, I am not optimistic that NHTSA–and NHTSA’s counterparts in other countries–will act quickly enough to ensure that Level 4 vehicles will be able to hit the road as soon as they could and should. As prior posts have noted, there are few federal regulations (i.e., rules that appear in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) that would present a significant obstacle to vehicles with up to Level 3 automation. But going from Level 3 to Level 4 may present difficulties–especially if, as in the case of Google’s self-driving car, the vehicle is designed in a manner (e.g., without a steering wheel, foot brakes, or transmission stick) that makes it impossible for a human driver to take control of the vehicle.
The difficulty of changing regulations to allow Level 4 vehicles creates a risk that automated vehicle technology will be stuck at Level 2 and Level 3 for a long time–and that might be worse than the current mix of Level 0, Level 1, and ‘weak’ Level 2 vehicles that fill most of the developed world’s roads.
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During the last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA,” the agency that didn’t redefine “driver” in February) held two public hearings on autonomous vehicles (“AVs”), one in Washington DC on April 8 and another at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, on April 27. In keeping with what you might expect, press reports of the two events suggested that the Silicon Valley gathering attracted the voices of people more enthusiastic about the promise of AVs and more intent on urging NHTSA not to let regulations stifle innovation in the field.
These public hearings are an important and positive sign that the NHTSA is serious about moving forward with the regulatory changes that will be necessary before autonomous vehicles become available to the general public. But before turning to what went down at these hearings (and to buy some time for me to watch through the full video of the second hearing), it’s worth pausing to give some background on NHTSA’s involvement with autonomous vehicles.
NHTSA has shown increasing interest in automation since 2013, when it issued an official policy statement that defined five levels of vehicle automation.
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