SAFETY CON­CERNS HIT HARD THE EMERG­ING RO­BOT CARS IN­DUS­TRY

The Gulf Today - Business - - SPECIAL REPORT -

Los An­ge­les: For the driver­less car in­dus­try, 2018 saw tech­nol­ogy break­throughs. Un­for­tu­nately, the year also was a pub­lic re­la­tions dis­as­ter. An ex­per­i­men­tal Uber driver­less car, with an inat­ten­tive “safety driver” at the wheel, ran over and killed a woman rid­ing her bi­cy­cle across a high­way in Ari­zona.

A US Se­nate bill that would have al­lowed hun­dreds of thou­sands of ro­bot cars on the na­tion’s high­ways stalled in part over safety con­cerns.

Waymo, the ac­knowl­edged leader, slowed de­ploy­ment of its long-planned driver­less taxi ser­vice near Phoenix, lim­it­ing it to sev­eral hun­dred hand­picked cus­tomers and keep­ing hu­man en­gi­neers in­side the car. Later, the New York Times re­vealed that some of those Waymo cars are be­ing at­tacked with rocks and knives.

To cap the year, Tesla Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Elon Musk ap­peared on “60 Min­utes” driv­ing down a Sil­i­con Val­ley high­way be­hind the wheel of a Model 3, his hands in the air and a grin on his face, to show correspondent Les­ley Stahl how the car can drive it­self. Crit­ics pointed out that Tesla’s Au­topi­lot is not driver­less tech­nol­ogy, that sev­eral peo­ple have been killed ap­par­ently us­ing Au­topi­lot im­prop­erly, and that Tesla owner man­u­als in­struct driv­ers to keep their hands on the wheel.

That gives a good sense of why driver­less com­pa­nies felt the need to form a wide-rang­ing con­sor­tium whose aim is to change the way the pub­lic views the in­dus­try.

DRIVER­LESS TECH­NOL­OGY

Part­ners for Au­to­mated Ve­hi­cle Ed­u­ca­tion, or PAVE, which was un­veiled Mon­day at the CES tech­nol­ogy trade show in Las Ve­gas, in­cludes car­mak­ers Audi, Gen­eral Mo­tors, Volk­swa­gen, Toy­ota and Daim­ler; driver­less tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies Waymo, Cruise, Aurora and Zoox; and com­puter chip mak­ers In­tel, Nvidia and Mo­bil­eye.

The group said it will “seek to bring re­al­is­tic, fac­tual in­for­ma­tion to pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the pub­lic so con­sumers and de­ci­sion-mak­ers un­der­stand the tech­nol­ogy, its cur­rent state and its fu­ture po­ten­tial - in­clud­ing the ben­e­fits in safety, mo­bil­ity and sus­tain­abil­ity.”

“We want to make sure that con­sumers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers un­der­stand what’s real, what’s pos­si­ble and what is ru­mour or spec­u­la­tion,” said Brad Stertz, head of gov­ern­ment af­fairs in the US for Audi.

In 2017, Stertz dis­cussed the in­dus­try’s pub­lic im­age at a Sil­i­con Val­ley restau­rant with Mark Rosekind, for­mer head of the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, now in charge of “safety in­no­va­tion” at Zoox, a driver­less car start-up. There is too much con­fu­sion about the tech­nol­ogy, they agreed. Some peo­ple fear it. Some peo­ple are ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic about its cur­rent state.

The driver­less car nar­ra­tive needed chang­ing, they de­cided. But it couldn’t be done sim­ply with pub­lic re­la­tions spin. An ob­jec­tive, fac­tual ed­u­ca­tion ap­proach was re­quired, they de­cided.

Crit­ics point out that many of PAVE’S mem­bers have a stake in the driver­less fu­ture. They are skep­ti­cal that the group will be ob­jec­tive.

“A cor­po­rate coali­tion of tech­nol­ogy prof­i­teers claim­ing to fo­cus on safety is akin to the to­bacco com­pa­nies telling us they have a safer way to de­liver nico­tine,” said Jack Gillis, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Con­sumer Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ica.

But Kelly Nan­tel, vice pres­i­dent for com­mu­ni­ca­tions and ad­vo­cacy at the Na­tional Safety Coun­cil, a mem­ber of PAVE, said that “the power of the group is its diver­sity.” She notes that while its 20 found­ing mem­bers in­clude ma­jor au­tomak­ers, they are joined by the Na­tional Coun­cil on Ag­ing, the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind, the Mi­ami-dade County gov­ern­ment and her group.

PAVE “is not a lob­by­ing group at all,” Nan­tel said, and it won’t take a po­si­tion on any fed­eral, state or lo­cal leg­is­la­tion.

Mark Ric­cobono, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind, said he’s been push­ing auto man­u­fac­tur­ers for years to make sure the in­ter­faces in­side driver­less cars can ac­com­mo­date the visu­ally im­paired. PACE, he said, gives him a seat at the ta­ble.

EX­PEC­TA­TION

“We have the ex­pec­ta­tion that these are go­ing to be used in pub­lic ser­vice fleets, and they have to be ac­ces­si­ble to us from the be­gin­ning,” Ric­cobono said. Driver­less cars, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, could vastly im­prove the lives of those who can’t see well enough to qual­ify for a driver’s li­cense.

PACE plans a pub­lic web­site and ed­u­ca­tional work­shops with pol­i­cy­mak­ers. Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Au­to­mo­tive Re­search will be a part­ner. Events will be held around the coun­try so that politi­cians and the gen­eral pub­lic can “see, touch and feel” driver­less cars - and ride in them.

The group faces se­ri­ous pub­lic per­cep­tion chal­lenges. Although the car­nage caused by hu­man driv­ers is ob­vi­ous - nearly 40,000 peo­ple killed by cars in the US an­nu­ally, the vast ma­jor­ity of cases be­ing the fault of the driver, not the car - the driver­less in­dus­try has mil­lions of road miles to go to prove with sta­tis­tics how safe driver­less cars are com­pared with hu­man driv­ers. And the only way to prove that is to put cars on the road.

The pub­lic is wary. A Gallup poll in May asked peo­ple whether they would use driver­less cars if they were avail­able to­day and cer­ti­fied by gov­ern­ment safety agen­cies. Only 9 per cent said they would use one as soon as pos­si­ble, 38 per cent said they’d wait a while, and 52 per cent said they’d never use one.

Some PAVE mem­bers be­lieve that some com­pa­nies and driver­less pro­po­nents are hyp­ing driver-as­sist tech­nol­ogy - which might of­fer adap­tive cruise con­trol, lane keep­ing and lane chang­ing - as driver­less tech­nol­ogy. “If you be­lieve a car is self­driv­ing, your be­hav­iour is go­ing to be dif­fer­ent than if you know you have to be al­ways en­gaged as a driver,” as is the case in ev­ery au­to­mo­bile now be­ing sold, Nan­tel said.

She used Tesla’s Au­topi­lot as an ex­am­ple. “For the av­er­age con­sumer, call­ing some­thing Au­topi­lot im­plies it’s self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy, when it’s re­ally driver as­sis­tance tech­nol­ogy. We’ve cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment where con­sumers don’t un­der­stand the lim­i­ta­tion of the tech­nol­ogy.”

Musk has long in­sisted that the word Au­topi­lot causes no con­fu­sion. Nei­ther Tesla nor Uber is among PAVE’S 20 found­ing mem­bers. It’s un­clear whether they chose not to join or were not in­vited. Tesla hasn’t re­sponded to a re­quest for com­ment, and Uber de­clined to dis­cuss the mat­ter. Some crit­ics say driver­less tech ad­vo­cates could ad­vance their cause by do­ing more to im­prove safety now and adding safety tech­nol­ogy to con­ven­tional ve­hi­cles.

“Ef­fec­tive, ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies are avail­able to­day in­clud­ing au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing, lane de­par­ture warn­ing and blind-spot de­tec­tion,” said Cathy Chase, pres­i­dent of Ad­vo­cates for High­way and Auto Safety. “How­ever, these tech­nolo­gies are typ­i­cally only avail­able in high-end mod­els or ex­pen­sive trim pack­ages.”

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