Floridians will soon see more highly automated vehicles (HAVs) on the roads, and they should welcome the sight. This new technology promises to alleviate many issues plaguing the Sunshine State’s roadways – from congestion to minor injuries and even fatalities.
Despite this great potential, misleading narratives about HAVs abound. A recent article gave voice to these views. Many of these unfair points deserve a response.
The piece outlines a series of arguments about why HAVs shouldn’t be allowed on the road until they meet certain benchmarks. Many of these standards are impossible or counterproductive, including “perfect[ing]” the technology, increasing needless regulations and preemptively setting legal precedent defining liability in the event of an HAV accident. These critics may demand perfection from this new technology, but by doing so, they are preventing progress and placing public safety in jeopardy.
First, requiring HAVs to be perfect – able to avoid all accidents – before they can be used publicly is a ridiculous standard. No technology is or ever will be perfected to this degree.
Right now, human error accounts for a full 94 percent of car accidents. Considering there were roughly 40,000 vehicular fatalities nationwide last year – nearly 3,000 of which were in Florida alone – it’s clear we have a lot of room for improvement.
Unlike human drivers, HAVs don’t get drunk, distracted or drowsy. They thus provide a valuable opportunity to reduce these accidents and fatalities. If HAVs can outperform humans in safety, they ought to be permitted to do so. As former National Highway Transportation Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind noted, “If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting for a very, very long time. How many lives might we be losing while we wait?”
Another argument made in the Tampa Bay Times’ piece was that HAVs need more regulation before being allowed on the streets. But HAVs are far from being unregulated. In fact, a host of federal and state regulations apply to them. And NHTSA has broad recall authority to take any vehicle that poses an unreasonable safety risk off the roads.
Furthermore, companies already face legal, political, publicity and economic incentives to make sure they are deploying HAVs safely. They know that the national media will cover and rigorously investigate every accident that occurs. This combination of post-market regulation and public incentives toward safety has created an environment in which companies can quickly begin testing and deployment while still being held accountable when they make mistakes.
Finally, the Tampa Bay Times’ piece raises the question of HAV-related legal liability and claims we need legislation to preemptively set liability standards before allowing HAVs on our roads. Specifically, it suggested that it would be “infeasible” to assess through the courts who was at fault in an accident involving an HAV. But this ignores the court system’s long and storied tradition of negligence-based liability distribution, which has shaped norms of fault that can apply to both old and new technologies.
Preemptively setting liability through legislation while this technology is still evolving risks backfiring by cutting off the iterative process through which liability and fault are assessed in the first place. If additional problems arise, or the courts prove unable to develop new liability norms, lawmakers can then implement state and federal laws to give clarity to and address narrowly targeted issues.
According to the old adage popularized by Voltaire, “perfect is the enemy of good.” This notion should be extended to the HAV debate. While HAVs aren’t perfect, neither are human drivers. But unlike human drivers, HAVs can fill a void needed to reduce roadway deaths by eliminating much of the human error responsible for the overwhelming majority of vehicle accidents. To oppose this greater good in favor of some unachievable, theoretical ideal of perfection will only harm Floridians.\
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