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TRAN: Self-driving cars need more regulation but should be supported

Column: Hung Up

While fully self-driving cars have been subject to controversy, with proper testing and regulations, they could be very advantageous for consumers. – Photo by David von Diemar / Unsplash

Just this past Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced the recall of 362,758 Teslas with the Full Self-Driving (FSD) Beta, which makes up approximately 10 percent of the company’s total sales to date.

The announcement stated that the lack of adherence to traffic laws, along with the misleading name, which implies that the driver does not need to pay attention, poses risks to vehicle safety. Many are criticizing the false promises behind Tesla and its approach to FSD, and perhaps rightly so. 

As it stands, many people are skeptical of the capabilities of self-driving cars. Despite costing the customer $15,000 extra, the feature still seems far from being ready for consumers and use on public roads. There have been complaints of such cars driving through the wrong lane, skipping stop signs and ignoring yellow lights excessively.

What may be most surprising about this is the fact that the U.S. does not require regulatory testing and approval for the implementation of driver assistance and autonomous technology features. This means that companies can just deploy these technologies onto their cars and sell them to the public without proof of safety.

They just need to self-certify that their products comply with certain guidelines, but these guidelines also lack specifications for self-driving capabilities.

On the other hand, the European Union requires the manufacturer to prove that cars with such technologies are as safe as those without them. And in Europe, Tesla has failed to get such approval. This means that the current FSD technology has not been deemed safe for public use and will not be publicly available in Europe until that changes.

Meanwhile, a possibly faulty and dangerous technology can be tested on the American public, with the only recourse being an NHTSA investigation and potential action (like this recall). This could mean months of incidents that are not prevented. Overall, these rules not only pose a threat to the driver but also to any pedestrians, bikers and other drivers sharing the roadways with them.

The lack of preemptive regulation seems a bit ridiculous in this space, especially with the technology still being relatively new. At least some guidelines are needed, as well as a shift to a "check first, approve second" process rather than the other way around, which poses significant safety risks.

Though the recall may seem like a major step back, it is important to remain optimistic about the future of fully self-driving cars. As it stands, approximately half of Americans think driverless cars will be bad for society. The majority do not want to ride in a driverless vehicle, and only 26 percent would be comfortable sharing the road with driverless cars.

Eventually, though, driverless cars will be significantly safer than human drivers. Approximately 94 percent of almost every car accident today is caused by preventable human error: humans making mistakes with road recognition/decisions, being distracted, drunk driving, fatigue and simple human driving performance.

But an autonomous car will naturally not face any of these issues. By simply removing human error from the equation, the roads would become much safer. It would also be much more convenient and efficient for travelers. Instead of having to focus on the road, the would-be driver can instead just relax, sleep or do productive work.

It would be like a plane ride but shorter, more personalized and without needing an airport. In addition, more effective transportation would then be available to those with disabilities who cannot drive themselves and may have a difficult time reaching public transportation systems.

Traffic would also be significantly reduced with smooth intersections that do not require traffic lights or other stops until the destination, effectively removing the bumper-to-bumper situations and city traffic. This would also make cities less congested, with the added benefit of lowering emissions to the environment with the cars being active for less time.

Some skeptics argue that the heavily technology-based cars would be able to be hacked, which would then cause accidents. But the chance of this happening would be far lower than the current risk and sheer number of accidents, which could also happen from malicious intent today.

Another argument against the vehicles is centered around job loss in the transportation industry, but some of these jobs may shift to other industries — the effects should be seen as uncertain.

So while the U.S. needs to proactively regulate and monitor the safety of these technologies before they are allowed on the streets, consumers should still keep supporting these new technologies.

Companies, in turn, will be more incentivized to pursue research and development to move us to a safer and more efficient world of transportation. While they may not be adequate or completely safe now, we should support the goal of implementing fully self-driving cars.

Tyler Tran is a first-year in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and minoring in Economics. His column, "Hung Up," runs on alternative Fridays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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