Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Safety Experts Speak Up [2] - #11 Comments in Response to NHTSA ANPRM

Turns out that safety experts, who are engineers, actually agree on a safety rubric and on the notion that one does not have to sacrifice safety to achieve innovation. One can require both safety processes and be technology neutral. I have also found, at not quite halfway through the comments submitted in response to the proposed Framework for Automated Driving System Safety, that safety engineering comments should be read as a primer on autonomous vehicle (AV) safety. In case anyone's memory is short, the draft framework was issued just before the previous Administration left office.

Painting of anxious face.
This post looks at only two comments, both in the neighborhood of 20 pages, the first written by Philip Koopman, Ph.D. and CTO and Co-Founder, Edge Case Research as well as an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He was the principal author of UL4600, the safety protocol mentioned in every safety expert's comment, and he has been working on AVs and their safety from the beginning of this modern AV development era. 

The second comment to be examined was submitted by Miles Thompson, at MITRE Corporation, on behalf of MITRE and written by Thompson and other staff. MITRE is a not-for-profit corporation that operates federally funded research and development centers across several sectors and does consulting. MITRE's work extends to cybersecurity, aviation, health care, and defense and intelligence.

Both Koopman and MITRE are in the business of AV safety. That is not to challenge their comments, but to be up front about their safety expertise being a part of their AV professional activities. This would be the same as a career public school teacher commenting on education or a prosecutor discussing the criminal justice system. 

My reading of the safety expert comments is that the whole either/or challenge of safety versus innovation is BS - okay, these engineers don't say that directly because they are polite and they serve in roles where such language would be detrimental to their careers and to their employers' reputations. These educated briefs push against the either/or myth of safety versus innovation and they reject the idea that safety must be sacrificed at the altar of innovation.  

The average person is wrong

The average person is someone like me, someone with no engineering education, familiarity with safety protocols outside of the kitchen and basic driving, or training beyond a CPR class well over 10 years ago that I barely remember. I once caused a major flood in my house, when I was an adult homeowner, by fiddling with a toilet that was having some hiccups. A law degree trains you to ask questions and to read well; if you are lucky it begins your path to writing well. Nothing on safety or fixing toilets.

I officially admit that my idea for AV safety was completely wrong. I kept thinking that some sort of driving test, perhaps done remotely, and on a schedule (akin to current car inspections) would ensure that only safe AVs would be operating on our roads. Nope. What the two experts who are featured in this post provide is a not so much primer on AV safety issues - for dummies, like me - but a well-written argument to shift our perspective from particular safety tests administered by or at the direction of NHTSA to enabling, encouraging, and maintaining a safety culture at the companies that are developing AVs.

Not safety defined, but safety integrated at each step of the way

Koopman expressly declares that a test is not a panacea, rather:

NHTSA should not spend massive resources attempting to define a comprehensive ADS “driver test.” While a minimalistic road competence test could potentially keep unsophisticated design teams that are not capable of fielding safe vehicles off the roads, a very extensive “driver test” would consume huge NHTSA resources and would be unlikely to provide strong evidence of operational safety at even the level of average human driver ability. At best such tests would only be likely to identify ADS designs so bad that they can’t pass a predefined test. (That goal is not a bad one, but could and should be achieved in an economical manner.) Such a test might, however, provide protective cover for an organization that is motivated to cut corners on safety by building to the test (even a randomized test can be expected to be gamed if it is the only safety measure required) instead of actually building a vehicle that will be safe in the real world.

...    ...    ...

Rather than attempting to assess functionality beyond basic tests in the vein of current FMVSS and NCAP approaches, NHTSA should instead emphasize assessing whether an organization has created a viable safety case, has performed self-determined tests responsive to that safety case adequately, and whether organizations are indeed paying attention to and taking action upon emergent safety issues of their own accord. [Editor's note: FMVSS are US Federal Motor Safety Standards set forth by NHTSA, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration; and NCAP is the European New Car Assessment Program.]

Safety integrated and transparent

What Koopman advises is a way to integrating safety, rather a set of specifications or specific equipment. In contrast, MITRE argues for performance standards: "NHTSA should adopt a system engineering approach driven by testable performance-based standards derived from implementation-independent safety requirements instead of prescriptive regulation." Both agree, however, that UL4600 or an equivalent safety protocol is necessary. 

One of Koopman's main concerns is transparency, not allowing the companies that produce AVs to avoid demonstrating safety. 

NHTSA could simply ask to check whether the data supporting the manufacturer claims can be replicated on their own terms. Such an approach should be coupled by field engineering feedback so that a company that performs overly simplistic tests will be confronted with realworld data of any inadequacies of their product before significant losses in real world operations are likely to have occurred. While there are obvious limitations to such an approach, it is clearly better than allowing manufacturers to use completely opaque processes to design and deploy systems without any checks and balances on computer-based system and software safety at the time of deployment.

Airline model and new suggestions 

Both Koopman and MITRE recommend something like what the airline industry has arrived at, a cooperative approach. MITRE points to the required data collection and Koopman praises the cooperation among all stakeholders. Koopman sees NHTSA's role as a facilitator whereas MITRE wants NHTSA to create a framework. These aren't opposites. I hope that I am understanding what both of these comments say and I fully admit that I am not well educated about safety engineering.

T-shirt with cicada image and
message to get out of the way
because they have waited 17 years.
Data collection and NHTSA having the data to make assessments is important, according to both comments. Koopman looks into the need to assess safety for partial automation/partial human operation of driver-assist technology. MITRE calls for continuous permitting that is not approved on a one-time basis:

Traditional vehicles that meet the FMVSS are released to the public and considered safe until enough evidence is gathered to say otherwise, which usually ends in the developer recalling the unsafe products to avoid regulatory punishment. With continuous validation, the certificate of safe operation can be provided on a time-limited period, based on the quality and frequency of the metric data. If the metric data stops, that may be enough justification for NHTSA to say it can no longer determine the safety of the ADS and it should be removed from public roads. [Emphasis added.]

MITRE also suggests a confidential employee reporting system so that errors are reported instead of hidden until disaster strikes.

NHTSA needs the capacity to assess and regulate

Koopman calls on the companies to tell their safety stories and not having NHTSA dictate from the outset. But he also calls NHTSA - and by extension Congress - on the carpet for not developing and growing computer engineering expertise at the agency.

NHTSA has historically under-staffed in the area of computer-based system safety, and especially software safety. However, in recent years automobiles have transformed from electromechanical systems to computers-on-wheels. Especially in electric vehicles, there is simply no way to understand whether a vehicle is acceptably safe without understanding computer technology. 

Painting - What Is Your Must?
I have to confess that after reading these two comments over and again that I tempted to stop reading the comments. I am not sufficiently educated for this task, I cannot tell a safety protocol from a kitchen food processor manual, and I am not being paid. But I do think that someone outside of government should be reading every comment because there are valuable suggestions made and heartfelt opinions expressed. And it's good to have more than one set of eyes. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Safety Experts Speak Up - #10 Comments in Response to NHTSA ANPRM

Rant first, comments to follow

Maybe prioritizing corporate business and speed are luxury attitudes available to those untouched by vehicle crashes or maybe we as a people can't resist the sleek charm and public relations of those selling and lobbying for a major industry that is accustomed to getting its way in Congress and in state and local planning. 

Most people are like my neighbors, the couple who walked into a dealership and were told that the car could drive itself for five minutes at a time, as though that were some magic interval, while they could read or watch TV on their phones. They had no idea that there is no car being sold today that enables the driver to completely not pay attention for any period, whether one or five or 30 minutes, and that there are no safety standards or testing performed by a neutral party or a government agency to ensure the safety of the technology to which they would be entrusting their lives - and the lives of anyone else on the road.

We assume that the law, the regulations, and those in the industries that produce our vehicles somehow look out for us. The job of a government agency is to safeguard people, not promote particular corporations or industries. When we drive a car, we want to think that the safety and operational assurances, or what look like assurances, actually mean something, whether those are statements made at a dealership, a rental agency, or - carefully worded - in the car manual.

We need engineers because they actually understand and are interested in the details of how to ensure as much safety as possible. 

Safety experts speak process, not promises

Gleaning comments to the proposed Framework for Automated Driving System Safety is a rich opportunity for NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to heed expert engineering advice on safety standards from those with education, expertise, and experience.

Hand lettering of "Altered Mobility."
As I come to comment #318 - with more than that to go -  I have read a few from safety experts, who speak frankly and without guarantees. I might not have even read all of these type of comments yet, as there are so many still in that virtual unread pile of a few hundred, but so far I am finding some suggestions that keep popping up. It's premature to say that this is a consensus that NHTSA should heed, but these are experts with decades of experience that NHTSA should listen to. 

Three comments in particular stand out for their frankness and the quality of the knowledge behind them:

IIHS has over 50 years of experience (going back prior to its merger with HLDI) and a track record of encouraging automotive safety improvements. Steven Shaldover has been the co-chair of the annual automated vehicle (AV) symposium  conference (along with Jane Lappin) since its inception and he has 45 years of experience in automation technology. He is now retired from the University of California's PATH program at Berkeley. 

Let's not be mistaken, these are not, as far as I know, complete streets advocates or new urbanists riding on cargo bikes with helmeted toddlers; they are car people, but engineers who believe and work to improve safety. 

Daniel Malarkey at Sightline has a somewhat different background. His LinkedIn bio says that he "has helped implement large-scale projects in infrastructure, technology, and energy in Washington for nearly thirty years. For Sightline, he thinks and writes about the same topics with a view towards sustainability." His knowledge is more energy and planning oriented than anything to do with automotive topics or automation. Yet his comments focus on the same processes for achieving safer AV outcomes as IIHS-HLDI and Shaldover.

Personal translation: Even playing field of rules beats out neighborhood gang brutality (from my Brooklyn childhood brain)

All three of these comments recommend a government-generated framework for safety regulation through a process rather than through any required outcomes, hardware, or software. What they all state plainly enough for any non-engineer-or-brilliant person to understand is that NHTSA step up and actually fulfill its responsibility by establishing mandatory rules and get rid of the farce of voluntary standards. None of these commenters use text quite like that because these are diplomatic professionals, albeit engineers; but that's the gist.

Photo road with graffiti on pole. 
The Sightline Institute comment, however, gets pretty blunt, while basing its argument on the current status of AV technology. 

The private companies racing to market automated vehicles and robo-taxi services would rather “self-certify” their safety. Such a position reflects the  narrow financial interests of individual firms rather than the broad public interest. Moreover, it will ultimately undermine the public trust necessary to enable widespread adoption of these beneficial technologies when they are sufficiently safe. We encourage NHTSA to carefully weigh the case for adopting a standard that doesn't inhibit innovation but does require companies to make a comprehensive argument, supported by data, for the safety of their automated systems prior to deployment.

These are not maniacs against capitalism, but rather proponents, even at their most blunt, of using regulation to create an even playing field in which those capitalists can operate, while promoting safety and correcting for the tendencies of individuals and corporate leaders to put profits and bragging rights ahead of the lives of unknown people who are going about their daily lives.

Which standard? I just want the machine to work. 🤷

Engineers have actually been studying and developing safety protocols for a long time. Surprise to me, but there are some that are generally accepted ones in the auto industry. I will quote some of the language around the rejection of NHTSA's current voluntariness approach and the standards mentioned in these comments. 


It is clear from the current notice and NHTSA’s past publications that the agency is reluctant to issue prescriptive regulatory mandates governing ADS behavior. However, the guidance issued by NHTSA so far is too vague to help ADS developers understand what will be expected of their efforts or to provide the public with any confidence that the agency is, in fact, trying to ensure that ADSs will be safer than human drivers. To move forward from its current “hands-off” state, we recommend that NHTSA begin by formulating specific guidance based on the process and engineering measures described in the notice. [p. 3]

IIHS-HLDI recommend that NHTSA adopt an “all of the above” approach to guiding the development of ADS technology to address the causes and contributing factors that lead to injury and death from motor vehicle crashes. Focusing on process measures in the near term by auditing ADS developers’ safety cases would provide NHTSA with an opportunity to shape ADS safety ahead of its deployment onto our nation’s roads. It seems that ISO2148, ISO26262, UL4600 or some combination of the three could be used as the basis for such an effort. Specifying sooner rather than later how NHTSA will judge safety cases can only help ADS developers address the requirements that ultimately should be imposed on them. We urge NHTSA to issue a specific proposal describing how it plans to ensure the sound development of safety cases by those entities developing ADS technology. [p. 2-3, Emphasis added.]

From Shaldover, we hear much the same.

Focus initially on the safety of the development process, rather than trying to quantitatively assess the safety of the ADS in action, because this is what is currently technically feasible, relying on process standards such as UL4600, ISO 26262 and ISO PAS 21448. ADS developers should be required to self-certify that they have followed these standards (or key sections of these standards), and in cases where they have not followed them completely, they should be required to provide supportable explanations for why this does compromise the safety of their ADS. 

Require assessment of safety of ADS responses to specific scenarios at a later time, after enough research has been done to determine how to do that effectively (how to define the relevant scenarios and the performance thresholds that need to be met to be rated “safe enough”).  [p. 2, Emphasis added.]

And from Sightline, a more concise statement: "UL4600 should serve as the foundation for new NHTSA standards for certifying the safety of automated driving systems." [p. 1, Emphasis added.] 

Why UL4600? 

I will admit that I do not know anything about UL4600 or the others mentioned. I do like the explanation supporting this standard, though, it could apply to the others as well. Not because UL4600 sounds like an emergency protocol in a Star Trek movie or the name of a plug you have to get after buying a fancy foreign mixer for the kitchen. The real answer is expressed in the Sightline comment and that answer is a mix of common sense and correcting for the weaknesses of capitalism. Here is a long quote from the Sightline comment; it articulates why a standard is needed and why this particular one is best.

UL 4600 incorporates ISO 26262 and other existing standards into its broader safety case framework. 

UL 4600 is not prescriptive. It allows for continued innovation, but OEMs must present evidence that their automated systems are sufficiently safe. 

UL 4600 was developed by a diverse stakeholder group including representatives from the automotive and software industries. The standard does not prescribe how automated systems should operate rather it requires OEMs to make a comprehensive case, backed up with evidence, for why their system is safe. Safety case frameworks have been used in other industries with new and rapidly developing technologies and will allow companies to continue to innovate and compete on cost and performance. 

UL 4600 requires information sharing that will promote safety and fair competition. 

Crucially, UL 4600 requires OEMs to share information about potential problems with their systems so others can learn from their mistakes without requiring the disclosure of critical intellectual property. Mistakes include not just accidents but failures of an automated system to accurately identify objects even if that failure doesn’t lead to an accident. This process continues after vehicles are deployed so their safety continues to improve. Sharing lessons about failures of automated systems allows every firm to build safer systems. NHTSA should not allow safety lessons to become proprietary and a means to block new entrants into the market. Rather NHTSA must create a shared database of best practices and edge cases to watch out for with automated systems. Companies can compete on technology, cost and performance but NHTSA must ensure that they all have access to the best information on how to build safe automated systems. [Sightline, p. 4-5, Headings included, but bold and numbers for paragraphs removed.]

Shaldover addresses the quest for innovation and why this standard will not inhibit that quest: 

UL4600 places no limitations on the technological innovations or specific technologies that the ADS developers may choose to employ, leaving them free to innovate. It only requires that they apply a comprehensive safety process to the development and implementation of the ADS, regardless of its specific technologies. [p. 3-4]

Why not corporate-friendly, innovation-boosting, voluntary standards?

Number one: Let's do away with the idea that innovation and safety regulation represent opposite sides of the coin, that they are mutually exclusive. IIHS-HLDI puts the matter plainly that NHTSA's role is to be the adult in the room, to protect lives. This was the whole reason that NHTSA was created. 

NHTSA’s obsession with “removing regulatory hurdles” and “not stifling innovation” is inconsistent with the agency’s mission “to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes.” Automated driving technology may prove a useful tool to help accomplish that mission, but it is naïve to think that it will improve road safety without public policy that guides it to that end. ADSs are not being developed solely to improve road safety. There are other business interests behind these efforts. The compelling need for early safety regulation is to obligate ADS developers to favor safety over competing demands of the technology (e.g., cost, speed, style). NHTSA is surely aware of the countless instances when safety trade-offs made for cost and convenience led to needless injury and death. [p. 1. Footnote deleted.]

Number two: One could argue that the recommendation against allowing safety processes and software to become proprietary actually encourages innovation in the realm where we want it - for example, enabling new designs for my cute AV tiny house of the future, or, better yet accessible AVs so that real people can easily roll wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, shopping carts, and luggage onto those AVs instead of breaking backs to lift them - while ensuring that every manufacturer provides AV products that are as safe as possible, though never perfectly safe. 

A final, but very brief, quote here because it sums up the attitude that NHTSA has been asleep at the wheel. "The agency’s current lack of specificity about the safety goals for ADS technology is indefensible." (IIHS-HLDI, p. 3)

More to read 

Comments to refer to if you would like more details about safety process or standards:

The Sightline Institute - submitted by Daniel Malarkey

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute

Steven Shaldover

Ralph Panhuyzen 

People's Republic of China - submitted by Zhao Minggang

Less detailed, but with process orientation recommendations:

National Society of Professional Engineers and its Emerging Technology: A Public Policy Regulatory Guide (a brief brochure)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Auto Alliance AV Regulatory Recommendations: Exploring the Details

The AV Roadmap: A Four-Year Plan to Revolutionize Transportation is a set of recommendations that the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the association of major automobile manufacturers and their tech counterparts, have issued as their wish list for the next four years. The Alliance's membership includes all of the big, established players - with the notable exception of Tesla. 

Four-Year Plan, But No Dates or Details

Though the Alliance is touting this document as a four-year plan, it is not a plan, but rather a set of recommendations that would enable them to maintain dominance and discourage regulation. Though no one could disagree with the final statement of this plan - "If we work together to get it right, we will reap the benefits of a safer, cleaner, and smarter transportation system." - it is difficult, given the history of the corporate players involved, to leave the driving to them, so to speak. 

Background - We're Not Tesla

Tesla's success and high-profile crashes are seen as muddying the waters for the 100+ year-old auto companies and their start-up partners: First, the press conflates partial automation with full self-driving capability. Therefore the public and Congress confuse the safety of the former with the latter. Second, with a growing number of partially automated vehicles on the road (SAE Levels 1-2), especially Teslas, and the tendency of drivers not to pay attention to the road - as they should be and are responsible for doing - there is an increasing sense that the public is being exploited as guinea pigs. A public turning against AVs, conflating Teslas with every other partially or fully automated vehicle, is not something that the traditional automakers want.

Most of the state autonomous vehicle (AV) laws that actually regulate AVs - in contrast to merely defining terms,  establishing a study, or allowing for some level of platooning - refer to highly automated vehicles (Levels 4 and 5). The division between partially automated vehicles (SAE Levels 1-3) and AVs is that line where a human driver becomes unnecessary.

And now for the Alliance's recommendations:

Roadmap recommendation #1 - Create a New Vehicle Class for AVs

This recommendation for NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to create a new class of vehicles with its own regulations outside of some of the FMVSS (federal motor vehicle safety standards) seems to lump together partially and fully automated vehicles because the document refers to both as AVs. In my opinion these two different types of technologies deserve different types of regulatory treatment as the former requires both a driver who acts responsibly and reliably, whereas the latter does not depend on human intervention. 

As an alternative, the Alliance asks that NHTSA complete its automation-related FMVSS work as soon as possible. During the Obama and Trump Administrations, NHTSA stuck to a hands-off approach on AV development, regulation, and standards. The image of AVs has shifted over that time, so it is unknown whether the Biden Administration will pursue a different path.

Roadmap recommendation #2 - Clarify Applicability of "Make Inoperative" Prohibition

Basically, this recommendation seeks to formalize the legality of partial vehicle automation that allows for a driver to select either human operation or automated operation, and to shift between those. Whether such vehicles are inherently unsafe, or unsafe without better design or without a great deal of driver education are certainly issues that Alliance members wish to avoid entirely.

Roadmap recommendation #3 - Establish a National AV Pilot Program

This recommendation for the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) to establish what the Alliance calls a "robust" program is vague, to say the least. The Alliance obviously is talking money and more of it because there is already money going into AV pilot programs and testing. I would guess that the Alliance refers to more than low-speed shuttles and freight trucking pilots. Is partial automation a part of this recommendation? Totally unclear.

Roadmap recommendation #4 - Improve the Exemption Petition Process

A recommendation to streamline or standardize - in order to speed up - the exemption process is not a bad idea. The Alliance also requests that "DOT should issue guidance that specifies what data is required as part of the exemption application." 

I would ask that as part of the anticipated exemptions for such AV exemptions that NHTSA - with the full backing of the USDOT - make its own requirements, such as accessibility of AVs, programming that prevents AV operation over posted speed limits, and technology that can recognize pedestrians, bikers, and other road users. After all, we keep hearing about how AVs will bring safety improvements and independence for people with disabilities. Let's have the exemption process advance those goals.

Roadmap recommendation #5 - Raise the Cap on Exemptions for AVs

This recommendation to allow a much great number of exempt AVs has long been sought through legislation from the Alliance and its members. The thought process here is that more AVs equals more data equals advances in the technology.

At least let's be thankful that these companies are willing to work with a government agency instead of throwing a product on the market without any notion of its safety. Oh wait, NHTSA has basically allowed Tesla to do that for years by refusing to regulate partial automation.

Roadmap recommendation #6 - Embrace Innovative Regulatory Approaches

Adjectives such as traditional, legacy, old, new or innovative do not say anything about quality. The question is not whether a regulatory approach is innovative, but whether it achieves the goal of regulation. So before we lock ourselves in a giant bear hug of innovation, we have to actually decide on the regulatory goals. Just saying "safety" is not enough. Safety for whom? There will be errors and crashes; nothing is perfectly safe. I think we can all agree that the FMVSS and regulatory processes as a whole are slow; so perhaps the word the Alliance should use is not innovative, but quicker. Is there a way to regulate well while doing it faster?

There is a request here for "virtual testing with validated simulators." Instead of offering a knee-jerk, uneducated reaction, I defer to actual engineers for input on this matter. I would guess that simulation can be quite good or it can be garbage-in, garbage out. From what I have read - and, again, I am not an engineer - perhaps this is a matter for collaboration among stakeholders and government about where the sweet spot is between simulated testing and testing on public roads.

Roadmap recommendation #7 - Maintain Traditional Federal and State Roles

For some reason, absolutely no one wants to upset this particular applecart. With AVs comes the conflating of the role of driver, traditionally regulated at the state level through licensing, insurance, inspections, and vehicle operation codes (such as speed limit violation punishments) versus regulation of the vehicle, provided for at the federal level. That is not entirely true due to the Bible-like level of deference given to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), drafted at the federal level, that proscribes standards for roadway design, speed, signage and signal placement. [Note: The MUTCD link above goes to the webpage of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that explains the MUTCD, its history, and the current draft revision, which is open for comments until May 14, 2021.]

Basically, no one wants to be a bad guy by suggesting to take away state control even if any uniform standards for roads and connectivity for AVs will accomplish just that. 

Roadmap recommendation #8 - Coordinate State AV Policies

I find myself asking how the Alliance can keep a straight face by genuflecting in Recommendation #7 to retaining the traditional federal-state division of regulation (tradition being considered something to respect on this matter, though not necessarily elsewhere), while in the next breath asking for uniform state AV regulation or, at least, regional groupings of states with uniform policies. Uniformity and federal funding to encourage it are recommended. Innovation is not welcome here; no laboratories of democracy.

Roadmap recommendation #9 - Align State Traffic Laws

In keeping with Recommendation #8, the Alliance seeks uniformity. Only when the companies do not want to be hemmed in are they for innovation, but when states experiment with different models of regulating AV operations, that's another story. States should all allow AV operations on public roads, the Alliance recommends. But the Alliance claims that human drivers and AV developers would benefit from uniformity.

Uniformity of state traffic laws and regulations would provide benefits not only to AV developers, but also to any road user who crosses state lines. At a minimum, a single resource of state traffic laws and real-time updates to those laws that is accessible to AV developers should be created.

There is nothing inherently wrong in what the Alliance recommends, but I don't see a request for lower speed limits or better designed roads. From a hunch and a two-minute search, I see that there is already a great deal of uniformity, but, like with any US uniform code that many states adopt, there are usually minor tweaks made. I don't see any drivers stopping by the side of the road at state lines to prepare themselves for operating a car in another state. But the recommendation for real-time updates, at the least, makes a lot of sense.

Roadmap recommendation #10 - Lead in International Forums

The Alliance recommends engagement at the international level on standards for testing and deployment. Certainly, the US should be actively part of such discussions and learning. AVs are an international quest and there are bedfellows that operate in different countries. There is also an outsize fear of the US being left behind, even though so much groundbreaking work is being done here. The threat of some other country, usually China is mentioned, taking the lead is often cited as a primary reason for passing lax AV legislation.

Roadmap recommendation #11 - Promote Industry Standards

The Alliance supports industry standards, but is silent on the role of government, particularly NHTSA, assuming leadership. I would say that the Alliance's words sound rational, but the auto industry has a terrible record of being dragged into integrating safety equipment on vehicles. It was only decades of research, advocacy, and regulation that has brought greater safety - to vehicle occupants and not to other road users. The automakers could have incorporated safer design in the 1930s and 40s, and certainly by the 60s, but they did not. Dr. William Haddon Jr. and James L. Goddard, both public health physicians, argued in an early 60s report about auto crash injuries that energy-absorbing safety design should not be made dependent on public demand. Haddon went on to become the first administrator of NHTSA and afterward led the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). 

Read more at Safety Sells: Market Forces and Regulation in the Development of Airbags (2005), an IIHS report authored by Martin Albaum, who served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for eighteen years (I am in the middle of reading this wonderful report right now.)

Just today, I am reading an opinion piece in Governing about Vision Zero, a movement now years old that the automakers could embrace, but do not. The author, T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, trained as a public health scientist and served as the vice chairman, acting chairman and board member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from 2015 to 2019.
There are practical, proven actions we can take, right now, to save lives. For instance, we can ensure that all new cars, not only the most expensive ones, have the in-vehicle technology, including automated emergency braking, advanced impaired-driving-prevention systems and pedestrian-protective exteriors, outlined by the Global New Car Assessment Programme. We can help states adopt sensible laws such as the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety’s 2021 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws. We can support state policymakers’ efforts to enact .05-percent blood alcohol concentration laws to reduce drunk driving. We can reduce speed limits where drivers interact with pedestrians and cyclists.
Any day of the week, any automaker alone or along with its peers is perfectly able to step up and pledge to incorporate Vision-Zero-recommended in-vehicle technology in every new vehicle and to advocate for safer road design and lower speed limits. Until such time as safety is truly embraced as an industry goal, when I see the auto industry looking for standards, I will continue to believe that these major corporate players are actually seeking a level playing field for marketing and profit.

Roadmap recommendation #12 - Build Knowledge for a Safety Assurance Framework

The Alliance here is recommending that the USDOT take the lead in encouraging research and convening industry players in developing a framework. The industry is not, of course, advocating rethinking of our transportation system and modal availability in a way that promotes public health through active transportation. Though I come to this with a snarky attitude of bias against these companies, I do agree with the recommendation that USDOT provide leadership and develop its own expertise in automated vehicle technologies.

Roadmap recommendation #13 - Prepare Roadway Infrastructure for AVs

The automakers were brilliant in their encouragement and lobbying to create a transportation system in the US that became a self-perpetuating one that prioritized their products - even at the high cost of thousands of deaths per year and a significant negative affect on public health. Though I agree that the US and its state and local governments should be preparing to install infrastructure that will allow for the safe operation of AVs, I think that we should not be deferring to the auto companies, which continue to seek their own profit and not necessarily improve communities and advance public health.

I agree with the innocuous recommendation here:
DOT should revise the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) to include items that will support and facilitate AV deployment. States should be encouraged and even incentivized to update their infrastructure consistent with any AV-related MUTCD update.
BUT I think that we need to revise the MUTCD with the broader goals of supporting public health, ensuring safety for active transportation and vulnerable road users, and promoting better environmental results in terms of emissions, mining, etc. Again, we have an MUTCD that has perpetuated a motor vehicle industry rather than giving people choices for safe, attractive ways to get around.  

The MUTCD is being reconsidered and May 14 is the deadline for submitting comments. Please refer to the template comments of America Walks and the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Copy these, add to them, and support the rights of those who do not drive - by preference, lack of a license, disability, or simply not having enough money - to travel around and participate as equals in our communities. It should not be a death defying activity to walk to a bus stop or a supermarket. 

Roadmap recommendation #14 - Support US Leadership on AVs

Finally, here at the last recommendation we raise the flag and insist on US remaining first as the priority. It sounds patriotic and it helps the profitability of the automakers and the tech industry. They want tax incentives, research and, especially, a free hand - "Finally, restrictions on the ability of developers to commercialize AV technologies should be avoided or eliminated." Why regulate? According to the Alliance and its members, regulation is the enemy of innovation. The subtext is that history should not be heeded.

What people care about in reality

When using a roadway to walk, bike, ride on a bus, or in a vehicle what people care about is safety, convenience and attractiveness. I don't care where my toaster, my laptop, or my phone is made - as long as it works well. 

When the car companies can agree with and use their efforts to support the following ideas from the opinion piece in Governing about Vision Zero, quoted above, then I will lower my level of suspicion when they release a 14-point plan that is merely a set of vague recommendations.
At the NTSB, I learned that we should not tolerate even one death, regardless of the mode of transportation. And I learned that we could implement proven methods to prevent deaths and injuries. Vision Zero isn’t just a good idea, it’s a proven strategy to eliminate traffic deaths. It’s time to call on the Biden administration, along with state and local policymakers, to take action and commit to #ZeroTrafficDeaths.

It's also time for the car companies and their partners in the tech industry to be good citizens. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

#10 Comments in Response to NHTSA ANPRM - Campaign of Cyclist Organization

Write-In Campaign

Love this! We have a write-in campaign from the League of American Bicyclists. Identical comments, very brief, from avid bikers. Nice. This is a wonderful exercise in participatory democracy available to any organization whose membership or constituency has a minimum of computer skills, a minute of free time, and a device to post with. Comment after comment is the same - a brief message with a link that allows for easy posting on the webpage for the Framework for Automated Driving System Safety  announcement of proposed rule making (ANPRM).

Photo of turtles in the sun.
Any organization can do this, but for this ANPRM only the League took the time to ask its members to sign on to the generic support of the League's full comment and to thus push for a shift in direction of the great big ship of federal transportation policy on which autonomous vehicle (AV) policy will be based. The generic comment basically states that the comment submitter agrees with the League's position about the ANPRM. No details, no engineering-talk, just an indication of support for an organization they trust and one with a simple goal.

The generic comment reads as follows: 

I am writing to support the comments of the League of American Bicyclists' on NHTSA's Proposed Rule for a Framework for Automated Driving System (ADS) Safety.
In the last 15 years people biking and walking have made up an increasing portion of traffic deaths and currently make up 20% of all traffic deaths. It is critical that NHTSA's Framework for ADS Safety prioritize the safety of people biking and walking to stop this increase and realize the potential of ADS for all people.

Through a "vision test," robust public testing of existing automated safety technologies, and research NHTSA can lead the way to safer roadways for all. Now is the time to make the safety of people outside of vehicles a priority in ADS safety.

So far, I have looked at over 200 of these identical comments from League members and a mere handful from individuals who added some text to emphasize their hope that we can protect users of other transportation modes, particularly pedestrians, but also transit.

I have not gotten to the bottom of the pile from League members and surely there will also be more comments from organizations as I reach the comments submitted at or near the deadline.

Why no one else?

Hand lettering of "contemplation."
I could list at least 10 organizations off the top of my head that provides or promotes a transportation option other than private vehicles, or that represents a transportation-challenged population - but none of these has enlisted its share of the public to inform NHTSA of their priorities regarding AV safety and regulation. Think of the possibilities for an explosion of public sentiment from older adults, people of color, transit riders, pedestrians, and people with disabilities.

At some point, I will tally these up and post the numbers. I am sure that the League did this as well with the opportunity to comment on the draft Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). So far, over 900 comments have been submitted in response to that draft and the deadline is not until May 14, 2021. America Walks and others have enlisted their constituencies to comment on that very important document.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Arizona Passes AV Law - Here's the Deep Dive

The Arizona bill, which passed unanimously,  HB 2813 has been signed by Gov. Ducey. The new law firmly keeps Arizona in the "welcome mat" category of US state autonomous vehicle (AV) statutes. Surprisingly, the statute also covers vehicles with a significant level of partial automation as well as fully AVs.

Partial automation - Think SAE levels 2-3 Tesla and Tesla-ish driver assist systems

The Arizona law requires a human driver is o be present in a vehicle that does not have the capability to reach a minimal risk condition on its own or with remote service. The law also provides for vehicle requests from a partially automated vehicle for a human driver to take over operation. Wake up! It's time to instantly become aware of your surroundings and operate heavy machinery in a complex environment. All I can think of is the wake-up, take-your-eyes-off-the-TV-show-or-video-game alert should vary by type of person. Some of us need more time than others. 

Photo of a Delaware beach. 
In the irksome category, the law uses the word "accident" instead of "crash," which is itself problematic, given the auto-oriented roadways in even the largest Arizona cities, let alone its small towns. Have you ever spent a weekend in downtown Phoenix? Nothing happening; a ghost town with some cars going through. 

Usual and unusual AV law stuff

The law requires the fully autonomous vehicle (AV) to be capable of stopping at the scene of a crash, which means recognizing that a crash has occurred.

AVs may operate without a human driver ready to take over operation of the vehicle if the person - never defined, but presumably responsible - for the AV submits a "law enforcement interaction plan to the department of transportation and the department of public safety that is consistent with and addresses all of the elements in the law enforcement protocol that was issued by the department of public safety on May 14, 2018." This looks a like a law that assumes a fleet-based model of AV business for the foreseeable future.

The law anticipates passage of federal legislation and compliance with its dictates. It also anticipates AV ridehailing - a/k/a robotaxi - fleets. In fact, AV ridehailing pickups and drop-offs are totally fine. For whatever a paid driver did, you are on your own. The AV will not be lifting your luggage unless it's an accessible AV, in which case you will be provided with a ramp and relief from back pain. That little digression, of course, is true of all AVs and gets to my belief that vehicle manufacturers, if they choose, have much profit to gain by manufacturing accessible vehicles, particularly AVs.

Hand lettering of "Moving in public."
Commercial AVs are permitted to operate as well in Arizona.

Local and municipal preemption.

The Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety are the only state agencies that may implement or enforce this chapter, except that neither agency may prescribe procedures or rules that are unreasonable or unduly burdensome.

Pretty standard stuff. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Arkansas AV Bill Seems Sure to Pass

Arkansas autonomous vehicle (AV) legislation has flown through the state's House and Senate, awaiting the governor's signature, and sure of passage. HB 1562 would delete the word "pilot" and permit permanent operation of an allowed AV on Arkansas roads. I do not disagree with this approach, though I find the attitude in the bill to be much more pro-business than pro-safety, any regulation of which is left to the state highway department. 

Another approach means vibrant experimentation

Pilots are generally well-funded, but temporary, projects that have been a favorite for the last few years in the AV shuttle world especially. For trucks and other AVs, testing has represented most AV operations. This doesn't mean that these are the only options and one can question whether a temporary fabulous service - sometimes only operating on particular days and for quite limited hours - can really prompt ridership demand or change how people travel. What most, but not all, pilots aim for is an unambitious introduction of AVs in a way that closely mirrors a quaint amusement park ride more than an actual transit or on-demand taxi-type service. 

This is not to say that there are not exceptions and the trend is toward transit-like or microtransit AV pilots. There is a place for permanent integration of well-designed AVs into our transportation networks. This is basically the course that Waymo has chosen in suburban Phoenix - located in AV-friendly Arizona.

The Arkansas bill could change this pilot/testing rubric in a major way in the Land of Opportunity State, though there is so much flexibility left to the State Highway Commission that the execution of such a statute would not necessarily result in wider latitude for industry. The presumption, however, is that corporate latitude - with as little regulation as possible - is the legislative purpose.

Name dropping without vision

There is no pathway to popularity laid out in the Arkansas AV bill for on-demand robotaxis or public transit, because the bill merely allows these AV services without mentioning how, why, or whether to regulate them, let alone prompting an explosion of zero-or-low emission modes or transit. 

Pre-COVID, Fayettville reported the following mode shares:

Fayetteville is host to about 44,000 workers aged 16 years or older. Of these workers, nearly 25% travel less than 3 miles to work, and nearly 50% of workers travel less than 7 miles to work. The private vehicle is the most used mode for commute trips in the city, with a share of 86%. About 6% walk for their daily commute, 2% ride a bicycle, 1% use public transportation, and less than 1% used a taxicab or motorcycle. About 4% of workers reported working from home. 

[Fayettville Mobility Plan, 2018. ] Please note that public transportation in Fayettville is fixed-route bus service with a minimum of 30-minute headways and a majority of routes having scheduled 60-minute headways. The service is fare free and the state university operates its own transit system.

Still, the bill allows AV operation as:

  • An on-demand driverless capable vehicle network,
  • For-hire transportation,
  • Transportation of multiple passengers who agree to share the ride in whole or in part, or
  • Public transportation.

This is all fine and perhaps Arkansas legislators envision their AV bill as an initial step toward a multimodal future, though I suspect otherwise. I find it interesting that online searches about the bill and its sponsors revealed almost no coverage of this legislation. AVs do not seem to be a hot topic for the  Arkansas public.

Monday, March 29, 2021

#6 Comments on Draft Strategic Plan on Accessible Transportation

This is the last post about comments submitted in response to the Draft Strategic Plan on Accessible Transportation. The comments discussed below were all submitted by individuals speaking on their own behalf, though represented in that group is one well-connected professor and a strident activist among the group. There were a total of 28 comments, pretty meagre considering that approximately 15-20 percent of the US population has a disability.

For me, it's a privilege to read the comments. Picture the black-and-white fact of voting results and imagine every person explaining why they are showing up to vote. That added color, as it were, is what we get to read in these comments.

Comment from Louise Shawkat

This comment states that not all people are able to drive and everyone needs to access medical care, voting, and houses of worship.

This comment expresses full support for frequent and reliable public transportation
[S]o we wheelchair users can get to school, work, groceries, friends and of course doctor appointments. Paratransit is universally terrible and actively dehumanizing - you have to allow a 3 hour window for pickup and then the way back and on the drive, they may go out of the way to drop off someone else.

This is so sad because Ms. Henry compares what anyone would consider mediocre bus service in DC or New York to be heaven because she would be able to reduce her harrowing three-hour wait and trek to an hour and a half.

Comment from Walter Park

This comment implores the USDOT that now is the time to take big steps and those steps, in the opinion of Mr. Park, are to support a robust, multimodal public transportation system. "Accessible transit can also be a huge benefit to the environment and a clean energy job-maker. Accessible high speed rail can transform California's economy and its communities."

This comment is from a civil engineering professor emeritus at the University of London. 
I am also a member of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) which is an expert committee established by the Transport Act 1985, providing advice to the UK  government on the transport needs of disabled people. I chair the DPTAC Research and  Evidence subgroup. I am also a member of the US TRB Accessible Transportation and  Mobility Committee. 
I have been actively involved in the development of the Inclusive Transport Strategy (ITS) which is an equivalent document to the US Strategic Plan on Accessible Transportation. The ITS can be downloaded from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inclusive-transport-strategy
This person has credentials. Prof. Mackett's first point is that the Draft Strategic Plan on Accessible Transportation is missing both a timeline and a plan for how to monitor progress. The professor offers contrasting policies in the UK as well. For instance, he discusses e-scooters, which are permitted to operate in the US, sometimes even on sidewalks. In the UK, in contrast, due to the risk that these devices pose to blind pedestrians, they can only be used on private land or as part of ongoing research trials. Prof. Mackett also provides a link to information about lawsuits brought by rail passengers who use wheelchairs. He asks that research be done on access to trains, looking at the spacial difference between train platform and rail car.

Prof. Mackett also refers to the seminal work done in the UK to review laws and regulations related to autonomous vehicles (AVs), including, specifically, for people with disabilities and older adults. For anyone seriously interested in legal frameworks for AVs, that multipart series (probably coming to over 700 pages in full) is a tremendous resource. 

Comment from Zach Karnazes

We have here a comment from a knowledgeable disability activist. Here is a link to Zacthivism, which goes into detail about Mr. Karnazes' disability work and info, which is very San Francisco centric, but quite informative and thorough. I will just say that Mr. Karnazes is also quite pro-equity and pro-transit union. Indeed, his first point is exactly what I keep saying, that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) should itself be complemented with or changed to allow for constant monitoring and enforcement rather than relying on passenger complaints. He suggests a federal civil rights enforcement body.

What Mr. Karnazes really wants is a new, better version of the ADA. I agree, but I doubt it will happen even if the filibuster were thrown out the window. Between COVID, vaccinations, saving democracy, and perhaps fixing or replacing crumbling infrastructure, no disability organizations are pushing for a wholesale refurbishing of the ADA. Mr. Karnazes, I salute you for speaking truth to power.

This comment is well worth the read, opinionated and with heart; here is a cursory look at Mr. Karnazes' wish list.
  • New ADA Title II, which removes "vague language around denials of access" based on administrative and financial burdens (which goes beyond transportation).
  • Increased funding for public transportation. Mr. Karnazes here cites the inherent conflict of interest for the bus driver when attempting to remain on schedule while taking the time to secure a person in a wheelchair.
  • Create an ombudsman office to help people with disabilities. "New York State has a program like this (https://aging.ny.gov/long-term-care-ombudsman-program), but California and most all other states do not."
  • Stop relying on disability organizations, "so-called "stakeholders" and corrupt "non-profits" that do not represent our community well and are afraid to make bold claims for fear of losing their federal funding." Instead, Mr. Karnazes suggests policy based on polling or other data collection that reflects the lived experience of people with disabilities. I will not offer my own commentary except to say that this gets complicated.
  • Make public transportation fare free for people with disabilities who are living in poverty. Mr. Karnazes refers the reader to videos in which people with disabilities describe the difficulties of living on Social Security assistance.
  • "Create a non-biased Grievance oversight procedure for ADA access issues with transportation, with the hearing judge that is not employed by or working at the office where the complaint is filed." Having worked at a local transportation administrative agency in a large city, I will remark that this recommendation has merit. However, I do not have knowledge of other agencies in this respect.
  • Support the bus drivers in their work and through their union.
This comment advocates briefly and without specifics for much improved public transportation systems in the US. The goals are accessibility, abundance of transit, and environmental friendliness. "Also, when you make public transit more accessible for one group of people, it ends up helping us all." Amen.