Automakers are scrambling to develop autonomous vehicle technologies and bring self-driving cars to market. In the frenzy to be first, competitors are boldly promising to deliver autonomous vehicles of varying capabilities by specific dates.
Meanwhile, several states, including Michigan, Nevada and California, are jostling to attract r&d centers and investments. The Michigan Senate has passed a bill that would allow on-road testing of autonomous vehicles without a human driver. Legislation advancing in Michigan also would allow electronically controlled vehicles without a steering wheel or pedals and without a backup driver to take over in case of a malfunction.
Not so fast. Please!
The sense of urgency is understandable -- highway fatalities are on the rise again -- but autonomous vehicle technology is perhaps not the ideal playground for such competitive fervor.
Autonomous vehicle development must not become, as Michigan state Sen. Ken Horn put it in a burst of enthusiasm, "the equivalent of the race to space." In that race, the sole prize was bragging rights, and the competitors staking their lives were highly trained volunteers who fully understood the risks. Unsuspecting motorists sharing a public road with a driverless test vehicle are not informed volunteers. And no automaker or government should let pride guide its approach to public safety.
It's commendable that automakers are investing energy and resources in autonomous vehicle research. Self-driving cars hold great potential for eliminating the human errors that lead to accidents, injuries and deaths. But safety can't just be the end that justifies the means. It must be paramount at all stages of the process.
The sooner autonomous vehicles arrive, the better for U.S. road safety. But rushing unproven autonomous vehicle technology to market and loosening safety rules during its development for the sake of a competitive edge would be too dangerous. Indeed, an error made in haste could thwart the entire effort to make roads safer.
The drive to autonomous vehicles shouldn't be a drag race -- or even a race.