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The government should be measured in its reaction to the Tesla crash

ICE Graveyard 23/07/2016 Jim Scheinman

When Joshua Brown’s Tesla Model S collided with a semitrailer truck on a Florida highway in May, it became the first known fatality in an autonomous vehicle.

Mr. Brown served in the United States Navy for over a decade, and had a long life ahead of him passing at the young age of 40.  His death is tragic and I send my deepest condolences to Mr. Brown’s family and friends.

I was hoping to never have to read about such a tragedy that befell Mr. Brown, but feared that it might be inevitable. I’m an investor in autonomous vehicle and self-driving technology* startups and I believe that we will have self-driving cars on the road much sooner than most of the ‘experts’ who are predicting post-2020.

Through Maven Ventures, I was a seed investor and board advisor in Cruise, recently acquired by GM for reportedly $1B, and we have made two other autonomous tech investments in our newest Maven Fund that we’ll announce soon.

I’m not alone in believing in the growth of this nascent industry: Goldman Sachs predicts that the market for advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles will grow from about $3 billion in 2015 to $96 billion in 2025 and $290 billion in 2035.

Because of my active role working with early-stage companies in this industry, I’ve learned a lot about the technical advances as well as discussed in depth some of the trickiest regulatory and moral issues.

Any new significant advances in technology, especially ones that involve critical and potentially dangerous daily consumer habits like driving a car will often be met with fear.  Fear of the unknown, fear of what society will look like in a world where there are only self-driving cars, and fear of something new.

The nomenclature around autonomous vehicles and self driving cars can be confusing — the most common reference point is the government’s defined levels of vehicle autonomy:

  • Level 0: The human driver is in complete control
  • Level 1: Function-specific automation, such as braking, can be done automatically by the car
  • Level 2:  At least 2 functions are automated, such as cruise control and lane-centering; driver must always be ready to assume control (e.g. this is what Tesla Model S calls “autopilot”)
  • Level 3: Drivers are necessary, but can shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle
  • Level 4: No driver necessary, “fully autonomous” vehicle

Last year 38,300 people died in car accidents in the U.S. and Americans wasted a whopping 6.9 billion hours of unproductive time stuck in traffic in 2014. These are just a few of the reasons why self-driving cars are necessary and will improve our world.

The outcome of the government investigation into the Tesla collision has the potential to profoundly impact the future of the autonomous vehicle and self-driving industries.

Tesla recently came out with its statement, saying that the accident was a rare circumstance, that neither a human nor the autopilot system could have foreseen, and that Model S vehicles are still safer than human drivers on the whole.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — the federal body responsible for preventing crashes and investigating this accident — will certainly have more to say on this topic.

Their stance and mandated regulations will have a strong impact on the future of this important technical innovation.

While I acknowledge and appreciate the role of governmental agencies to protect its citizens from harm, I encourage the NHTSA to be rational and measured in their response.

Today, the United States has a significant lead in the autonomous vehicle and self-driving car industry. The NHSTA would be wise to not set us back years or even decades by inappropriately overreacting to where we need to eventually be: a world where there are only level 4 full autonomous self-driving vehicles on most roads.

*While many use the terms “autonomous” and “self-driving” interchangeably, carmakers make a distinction. Autonomous vehicles can move independently but look similar to contemporary vehicles on the road and have human ownership. Self-driving vehicles refers to a whole new class and design of vehicles where there is no steering wheel, or necessarily personal ownership. (source: The Economist)

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