NTSB Chairman Christopher A Hart; image courtesy NTSB

NTSB Chairman Christopher A Hart; image courtesy NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has some ideas for ways to make the advent of autonomous vehicles safer for everyone on the road. Christopher A. Hart, chairman of the NTSB, spoke about those ideas June 30 in a speech at the National Press Club Newsmakers Luncheon in Washington, D.C.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates accidents in all forms of transportation and makes recommendations to prevent such crashes. Hart (who mentioned he lives in Colorado) said:

First and foremost, driverless cars could save many, if not most, of the 32,000 lives that are lost every year on our streets and highways — a very tragic and unacceptable number that has been decreasing for several years but has recently taken a turn in the wrong direction.

Driver Error

Most road accidents are caused by driver error, Hart said. And because of that, cars that can drive themselves would obviate at least four issues on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements:

  • Driver fatigue
  • Distracted driving
  • Impaired driving
  • A driver’s ‘fitness for duty’

There’s a presumption that autonomous vehicles’ improved collision avoidance technologies will help to prevent crashes. But, sometimes, designers of automated control systems have inadvertently opened the door for new, more serious errors.

There have been instances of the automation failing without the person operating the transportation mode knowing. And even if there is no human operator in a fully-autonomous vehicle, there’s still room for human error because autonomous systems (and the roads they use) are designed, manufactured, and maintained by humans.

As Michael Laris writes in The Washington Post, Hart asked, “If technology fails, will it fail is a safe way?”

When partial automation mixed with human operators, humans are the less reliable part of such a system. But, when a human is highly trained and proficient, he or she can prevent a problem by being the more adaptive part of the system. Hart gave the example of Capt. Sully Sullenberger’s amazing landing of a commercial airliner on the Hudson River in New York.

Encouraging Collaboration

NTSB is encouraging collaboration, and Hart gave the example of commercial aviation. Airline industry stakeholders have voluntarily collaborated with each other to form the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or CAST. In CAST, the airlines, manufacturers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and regulators work together to pinpoint safety issues, prioritize them, come up with solutions, and evaluate whether those are working.

Hart said they did it:

[T]o do something that, to my knowledge, has never been done at an industry-wide level in any other industry — they pursued a voluntary collaborative industry-wide approach to improving safety.

The CAST process has been “an amazing success,” reducing the aviation fatality rate by more than 80% in less than 10 years, from the rate-plateau it had been stuck at. And one of many advantages with CAST (including increased productivity and very few unintended consequences) was that the success occurred largely without new regulations.

Hart said the NTSB can help the auto industry figure out to what extent a collaboration like CAST’s might be transferrable. There are differences, for example, aviation is regulated federally, whereas states will likely be making their own laws for driverless cars.

Black Boxes for Cars

Finally, NTSB would like to see the use of “robust” event recorders in cars, the way black boxes are part of airplanes’ technology. Such event recorders will provide crucial crash information to help agencies and car manufacturers solve problems to prevent crashes from happening again.

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