The next president should make driverless cars a White House priority, group says

The next president should move supervision of driverless vehicles under the umbrella of the White House to better keep up with the rapid pace at which the technology is emerging, according to a report released Thursday.

The white paper from the recently-formed Alliance for Transportation Innovation argues that responsibility for managing the various federal agencies and industry should be vested in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which released guidelines for driverless cars last month, has taken the lead under the Obama administration in dealing with automakers and innovators in shaping the technology.

“The DOT is not equipped to lead something this big, this complex, something this cross- cutting,” said Paul Brubaker, chairman of the alliance, “and I think [the Office of Science and Technology] has access to the talent, to the mandate and will have the knowledge, skills and abilities to effectively operationalize this strategy and produce the outcomes that we’re looking for.”

Brubaker has worked at the departments of transportation and defense and as a senate staff member.

His report says that “American drivers have a deeply misplaced confidence in their ability” to drive, and suggests that the sooner they be relieved of that responsibility, the better.

“Make no mistake, we will eventually get to a self-driving future, but every day we delay can be measured in lives lost,” the report says.

“The incoming administration has this unprecedented opportunity when it comes to accelerating the paths to self-driving in ways that are going to save lives,” Brubaker said in an interview. “They can really effect some change if they make this sort of a marquee issue. We can accelerate the pace.”

Still, uncertainties remain about just how the incoming president would approach the issue.

Hillary Clinton’s technology platform says the United States should “lead the world” in areas such as autonomous vehicles, adding that she’s prepared to make investments in wireless infrastructure that can support driverless cars. But in an interview with LinkedIn this summer, Clinton also said Americans must also wrestle with the reality that “a lot of trucks and cabbies and Uber drivers and a lot of other people may well lose jobs.”

Donald Trump has focused even less on the issue. At a meeting with business leaders in Ohio last month, Trump, responding to a bullish comment on autonomous cars, got a few laughs when he asked “safer or catastrophic? I’ve seen some things,” according to an account in the Dayton Daily News.

Brubaker sees the White House as better able to coordinate driverless car advancement by working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology on cyber security issues, the Federal Communications Commission on over-the-air communication between vehicles, and the Federal Trade Commission on matters involving privacy of data.

“We are already seeing a number of well-meaning but misinformed actions being taken by Congress, state legislators and regulators in the name of protecting personal privacy,” the report says.

“All of these players have to be coordinated on the federal level,” Brubaker said. “If you designate an executive agency like DOT to take the lead on this, it’s really difficult to coordinate cross-agency. It’s damn near impossible. You’ve got to use the bully pulpit of executive leadership. This is only going to come out of the executive office of the president.”

A former deputy assistant secretary of defense, Brubaker said the military has been working on autonomous vehicles at Fort Bragg and Fort Hood, and their efforts need to be coordinated with civilian efforts.

“I believe that the administration and the secretary of transportation and the [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] administrator pushed the envelope as far as they could in terms of promoting self-driving,” Brubaker said. “That’s why I commend the secretary [Anthony Foxx] and [NHTSA administrator] Mark Rosekind, because they get it.

“What I don’t think people realize is just how badly the department wants to push this agenda forward,” he said. “And I just hope and pray that it doesn’t come to a screeching halt at the end of the administration when these people pull out. I hope there’s significant momentum to keep this ball rolling.”

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