National Press Club

NTSB chairman: Driverless cars promise to save lives, but there are challenges to overcome

June 30, 2016 | By Gwen Flanders | glflanders@gmail.com

Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman holds an imaginary steering wheel as he answers a question about autonomous vehicles during his luncheon appearance at the National Press Club, June 30, 2016.

Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman holds an imaginary steering wheel as he answers a question about autonomous vehicles during his luncheon appearance at the National Press Club, June 30, 2016.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Driverless cars have the potential to save thousands of lives by eliminating the main cause of highway crashes –- human error –- National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said Thursday at a National Press Club Newsmakers Luncheon.

But so-called “autonomous vehicles” won’t be cruising the roads anytime soon, Hart said.

“People are underestimating the challenges,” he said. “It’s going to take longer than people are estimating.”

He didn’t offer a timeline but outlined the challenges.

“The theory of removing human error by removing the human assumes that the automation is working as designed," Hart said. “What if the automation fails? Will it fail in a way that is safe? If it cannot be guaranteed to fail in a way that is safe, will the operator then be able to take over to avoid a crash?”

Even if a human being is not driving, Hart said, “humans are still involved in designing the vehicles, manufacturing the vehicles and maintaining the vehicles, as well as the streets and the highways they use. Each of these points of human engagement presents opportunities for human error.”

NTSB investigations of how automation played into plane crashes, train derailments and other accidents offer lessons for designing automated cars, he said.

Most of those investigations involve “relatively structured systems with highly trained professional operators who have various requirements regarding proficiency, fatigue, impairment, distraction and fitness for duty,” Hart said. By contrast, most ordinary drivers “are not highly trained and may be fatigued or impaired or distracted or not medically fit.”

The NTSB recommends the use of “on-board event recorders” similar to the data recorders known as “black boxes” on airplanes. “Assuming that difficulties will be encountered as automation is being introduced, the more the industry knows from the event recorders about what went right and what went wrong, the more the industry will be able to fashion remedies,” Hart said.

He is optimistic that auto manufacturers will collaborate on the technology in the same way they collaborated to develop cars that automatically slam on the brakes to avoid a collision.

Prototypes of driverless cars are being tested by automakers, not to mention Google. Nevada, Florida, California, Michigan and the District of Columbia have passed legislation making them legal to operate, although the laws differ on such points as whether a vehicle needs a steering wheel and whether a driver should keep hands on the wheel.

Hart mused about the effect of driverless cars in the not-too-distant future. In the closest he came to a timeline, Hart supposed that his 13-year-old daughter will want to learn to drive in three years but that a toddler today may have no need for the skill by the time he turns 16.