Everyone cares about safety. And no one can agree on what that term means or what it entails.

That was the only bit of consensus to be found during a workshop about the future of autonomous vehicles, hosted by the State of Nevada on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Leaders from the public sector, business community and academia all took part in the full-day session, with the goal of getting these different communities to talk to one another about the public-policy challenges we need to grapple with before autonomous vehicle technology hits the roads.

One term thrown around a lot is “goal zero,” whereby autonomous vehicles would be held to a much higher standard than traditional vehicles, toward an end goal of zero operator fatalities. Should safety be evaluated based on the outcomes achieved by autonomous vehicles? Or does safety simply mean adhering to current federal standards for collision-worthiness? The question is of real and pressing concern as state legislatures pass laws that enable agencies to regulate the operation of autonomous vehicles, without expressing a clear understanding of the concept of safety.

Bernard Soriano, chief information officer of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, noted his state is taking a cautious approach to autonomous vehicles, in line with an enabling statute that repeats the word “safety” a lot.

California’s draft regulations set the federal collision safety standards as a floor for any vehicles that would be certified to operate in the Golden State. But the California Department of Motor Vehicles rules then go beyond that, barring any private sales or ownership of autonomous vehicles (they could be leased, but only up to three years); barring any commercial uses of the vehicles whatsoever; and barring any vehicles that lack steering wheels or other driver inputs – what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls “Level 4” vehicles.

Taking a measured approach to rolling out autonomous vehicles certainly has appeal, but it also has costs. Volkswagen representative Barbara Wendling expressed that a “cautious” approach could mean the technology doesn’t go through the ordinary stages of being perfected, as it otherwise would. In practice, a cautious approach looks much like a heavily prescriptive approach.

The stakes of such missteps are high. The United States currently sees about 5.3 million traffic accidents annually, with 2.2 million accident-related injuries and 33,000 fatalities. Sebastiaan Bongers of SwissRe shared his firm’s projections of meaningful reductions in both fatalities and injuries that could be achieved with widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles.

In light of those findings, a cautious approach could actually be more destructive, literally, than a more liberal approach. More basically, without a concrete understanding of what sort of “safety” is sought, it’s impossible to know whether a particular set of regulations strikes the right balance, because we haven’t yet agreed on what would be the most desirable outcome.

Without an operating definition of “safety,” the California DMV has elected to revel in the ambiguity presented by its enabling legislation. Its self-proclaimed cautious approach will effectively insulate the state government from criticism as autonomous vehicles are rolled out and, inevitably, suffer setbacks.

But regulation that dampens the promise of autonomous vehicles without a clear vision of the costs and the benefits is deeply problematic. Advocates of caution should be made to justify the human cost of their cautious approach. Proclaiming caution without explanation is as unconvincing as it is destructive.

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