An open letter to NHTSA responding to Apple's letter regarding autonomous vehicles of November 22, 2016: NHTSA-2016-0090 and NHTSA-2013-0137
December 5, 2016
Mark R. Rosekind, Administrator
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE, West Building
Washington, DC 20590-9898
Dear Administrator Rosekind:
With Apple's letter of November 22 referencing Docket NHTSA-2016-0090, it has officially jumped onto the self-driving car scrum. It does appear that, given the large number of e-children texting while driving, Silicon Valley firms are pushing for the elimination of human-driven cars to solve the problem.
I worked on DARPA's Autonomous Land Vehicle project, possibly the first autonomous vehicle effort in the country. For the first road test, we had to oil the road and paint the barren grass on the shoulder green to maximize the contrast between the road and the shoulder. In March 2016, Reuters quoted Volvo's North American CEO -- "It can't find the lane markings! You need to paint the bloody roads here!" -- proving that we have not made much progress since then.
If you are not doing anything this summer, I recommend taking a road trip to the Denver area to experience the occasional hail storms which would give AI systems fits. In the course of a few minutes, the weather can go from sunny to dark to raining to hailing, sometimes all at once. Not to mention the road surface which can be dry, wet, or covered with hailstones. What will the vaunted sensors do when they are covered in ice? Sometimes hailstones are large enough to cause damage to windshields and body parts, both motor vehicle and human. Given that some proponents of self-driving vehicles advocate for the elimination of steering wheels and pedals, what will we do when thousands of vehicles are suddenly immobilized due to sensor incapacitation? Send an army of autonomous tow trucks to rescue them?
I completely agree with Apple's contention: "That the Federal Government maintains sole authority over the safety of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment -- including automated driving systems -- and that states adopt NHTSA’s Model State Policy to avoid policy proliferation and inconsistencies that may prevent or delay deployment." We cannot have self-driving cars which work well in sunny California, but fail to provide a safe and reliable ride when driven on vacation to the Rocky Mountains. Full faith and credit, and all that.
I completely agree with Apple's position that data should be shared between all designers of autonomous vehicles. You know better than anyone that we are not talking about a new design for a steering wheel; we are talking about an entirely new type of driver. In this respect, the self-driving community would be channeling the open source software community which allows anyone to view source code to ensure that as few bugs as possible are present. Linux has proven itself to be fairly robust with respect to security, as compared to the proprietary Windows for which vulnerabilities are announced each week. And yes, Apple is being devious, because it would be able to learn the business much faster.
I completely agree with Apple's assertion that privacy must be protected. It would be a major hickup in Google's plans to monetize autonomous vehicle data, but it's time to put a few roadblocks in the path of the data broker express.
However, I disagree with Apple's view that the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act should be modified to "provide the same opportunity to new entrants." Timmy-come-latelies must prove that they have the right stuff with respect to automobile operations. Ford was founded shortly after the turn of the century -- that would be 1900 -- and has learned many lessons since then. If the auto business was so easily learned, Studebaker and Packard would still be with us. Tesla learned the automotive business fairly quickly, but then again, the only fatality in an autonomous vehicle has been in one of its cars.
I disagree with Apple's claim that it "expects companies may add functionality or change a particular design or function multiple times within a four-month period. This rapid iteration should not require multiple Safety Assessments." On the contrary, we should not reduce safety standards to make Apple's project management easier.
Not to mention that Apple has a sordid history with respect to the lives of others. In a Chinese factory run by Foxconn, a subcontractor used by Apple, Dell, Microsoft, HP, Intel, and other outsourcers, 18 employees attempted suicide, with 14 succeeding, by jumping off the roof of a factory. If I had been the CEO of Apple, I would have boarded the very next plane, discovered what the problem was, and solved it before another person attempted suicide. Saint Steve did not do this. Apple and Foxconn's solution was to install nets to prevent further jumping and require employees to sign pledges forbidding suicide. Only companies of high integrity should be designing systems which could kill or maim numerous pedestrians and passengers.
Like Apple, I would commend DOT and NHTSA for "facilitating a national conversation about the safe and ethical development and deployment of automated vehicles," but there's no rush. Let's get it right.
P.S. Docket NHTSA-2013-0137 includes the following scary sentence: "The Phase 1 Guidelines recommend that devices be designed so that tasks can be completed by the driver while driving with individual glances away from the roadway of 2 seconds or less and a cumulative time spent looking away from the roadway of 12 seconds or less." To even consider a time of 12 seconds borders on sociopathy.
In the interim, we should require smartphone manufacturers to add a capability to prevent texting or game playing by drivers or passengers while the engine is running, perhaps via the detection of ignition noise, because while it is sometimes desirable for riders to make voice calls in a running vehicle, there is no scenario where it would be necessary to text or play games. The 3.5-year prison sentence given to a rail dispatcher in Bad Aibling, Germany for playing games on his smartphone while 12 passengers were killed and 89 injured is the only model we need.