Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is preparing a proposal that would make safety measures like automatic breaking standard in all new cars sold inside the US. Secretary Foxx wishes to create “…a regime in which the safety advances actually kick in before an accident occurs….” Although the use of the term “regime” is a terrible PR misstep, it does focus our attention on the potential abuse of such a system. As such, there are, at least, three areas Secretary Foxx must address when it comes to ensuring a system, which could reduce the 30, 000 vehicle fatalities seen the US every year by 70 or 80% according Mr. Foxx, does not do more harm than good.
1. The Economics Although we are certain to hear from the auto industry and a variety of other groups on the actual cost of this regulatory burden, it is also important to remember the used car market makes transportation affordable and accessible to huge segments of the American population while making vehicles significantly more environmentally friendly. As such, it is also important to consider the longevity and maintenance costs associated with this technology for the sake of secondary consumers. Meanwhile, the promise of safety by avoidance will likely be used to justify cutting back on other safety measures. Given lighter vehicles are more fuel efficient, this may well translate into weaker vehicles that cannot withstand the impact of a collision when an unavoidable collision does occur or these automatic safety measures fail, which there is always a chance of this occurring. It is important to remember that technology can minimize the occurrence of accidents, not eliminate them.
2. The Privacy Issue Because the Obama Administration wishes to require cars to communicate with each other instead of simply giving all vehicles the ability to assess the hazards of a situation, there will be a massive amount of data generated on the habits and activities of drivers that can be recorded and analyzed. Quite frankly, this data and metadata would be a goldmine for both private and public sources. As we have yet to address the emerging hazards of technologies that record massive amounts of user data, privacy issues are clearly a major concern. Not only would private firms use this data to make money and the Department of Transportation to improve traffic flow, policing entities would also want access to this data for their purposes. Whether private or public entities hold onto this data, or at least have it available for real time analysis, the availability of this information creates a potential for abuse that could be seized upon by corrupted officials or by well-intentioned civil servants following emergencies like 9/11. As such, it would likely be better to empower vehicles to assess for potential hazards and severely limit how they communicate with other vehicles and the transportation grid.
3. Hacking and Terrorism Currently, researchers have shown it is more than possible to hack the tracking systems of seafaring vessels, thereby enabling wrongdoers to control where a ship goes. Given this very real threat and the digitalization of our vehicles, all drivers around the world should be concerned about someone hacking their car. As such, the DOT needs to address the potential hijacking of these automatic driving and stopping technology by ensuring drivers have the ability to the override the system, among other precautions. We should also recall the many fatalities caused by sticky accelerators on Toyotas where computer programmers failed to prioritize stopping above acceleration as well as several other engineering oversights. Whether dealing with a lack of insight into potential programming issues or anything from playful hacking to widespread terrorist threats , it is important to recognize embracing regulations that force new technologies onto all consumers creates problems that must be addressed before they become problems. A failure to do so will turn the 20,000 plus lives saved annually by the technology into hundreds of thousands killed.
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