The news from Florida of the first-ever fatal accident in a driverless car, a 2015 Tesla Model S, was quite a surprise.
Ready or not, autonomous driving technology has arrived, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about technological change, it’s that there’s no going back again.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident in Florida, but NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart told the National Press Club recently that the crash will have no effect on the advance of driverless cars.
“This train has left the station,” he said.
And he thinks the technology holds great promise for safety on the roads. Hart said driverless cars could save many, even most of the 32,000 lives lost every year in vehicle crashes, because automation removes the four risk factors that cause most crashes involving humans: fatigue, distraction, impairment, and “fitness for duty.”
Hart also sees the possibility of vastly increased efficiency from the use of highways and roads, because driverless cars can safely travel with very little following distance.
The NTSB investigates crashes in all modes of transportation and tries to determine how to prevent a similar accident from happening again. The agency makes recommendations, not regulations, and its sole focus is safety.
So the agency is uniquely qualified to help everybody figure out how to introduce this new technology into our lives.
“The whole process is going to be very complicated,” Hart said. “I think people are wildly underestimating the complexity of bringing automation into this system involving Joe Public.”
Automation technology has long been used successfully in aviation, but unlike driving, flying is regulated only by the federal government. Hart said it’s easier to adjust federally approved safety procedures for a limited number of professional pilots than to coordinate the laws of fifty states affecting every American with a driver’s license.
Collaboration, he said, will be key.
But think of the possibilities. Older people who want to stop driving will never have to give up their car and their freedom. Driverless cars will take kids to school and even run errands. Imagine sending your car to a store or restaurant to pick up your order and bring it home again. Picture the convenience of being driven from door to door in a car that can park itself, miles away if necessary.
It’s the future.
But maybe not in Los Angeles, where our government officials are not planning for any new uses of the roads, unless you count removing lanes to make more room for bicycles. Instead, they’re planning an endless expansion of mass transit.
Despite ridership numbers that have been declining since the 1980s, government officials in L.A. County want voters to raise the sales tax for the fourth time to build more transit projects.
The original plan floated by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) called for a sales tax increase of one-half of one percent for 40 years, plus an extension for several decades of the 30-year Measure R sales tax hike passed in 2008. Metro officials said this would raise the staggering sum of $120 billion.
But even that wasn’t enough. So Metro decided to eliminate the sunset provision and make both taxes permanent, just like the two half-cent sales taxes for transportation passed in 1980 and 1990. That would mean two cents of the sales tax on every dollar would go to Metro for transit, forever.
Metro CEO Phil Washington says his agency is building a transit system for 100 years from now, but every day that sounds more disconnected from reality. The future has arrived, and it’s on the road.
We could be planning for improvements to the freeways, or transit service upgrades made possible by cost-effective driverless buses.
Instead, our government remains committed to the idea that driving is the past. Billions of tax dollars are being squandered on boondoggle rail projects, including the bullet train, in the quixotic belief that people will get out of their cars.
Don Quixote was a mad knight. He shouldn’t be making transportation policy.
The new sales tax increase proposed by Metro will be on the November ballot, and it will need a two-thirds vote to pass. If it fails, a lot of construction contractors, union workers and transit-oriented developers will probably be unhappy.
But the future can’t please everybody. NTSB Chairman Hart was asked if the move toward driverless cars is facing pushback from city governments that rely on speeding tickets for revenue.
“Good question,” he said. “Next question?”