By Melanie Zanona - 06/30/16 03:24 PM EDT
As federal and state governments begin to develop policies surrounding autonomous vehicles, a federal safety board hopes regulators will call on the agency’s safety expertise to help bring more self-driving cars to the roads.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Christopher Hart, speaking at a National Press Club luncheon on Thursday, said the agency is stacked with a team of safety experts and accident investigators who can provide insight on the potential benefits — and risks — of autonomous vehicles.
“We could be a very valuable resource,” Hart said. “If people don’t take advantage of that experience … then they’re missing a valuable opportunity to miss the bumps in the road.”
Hart said that the NTSB’s most valuable asset comes in the form of recommendations. The independent federal agency oversees accidents in all modes of transportation by determining the cause of the incident and offering suggestions to prevent it from happening in the future.
“Our world-class investigators and analysts don’t like to give up until they have the answer,” he said.
Hart hailed the power of driverless cars to significantly reduce the 32,000 traffic deaths per year, which are mostly caused by human error.
But he also ticked off a list of lessons that the autonomous vehicle industry can learn from the NTSB’s experience with accidents in other modes of transportation.
“That experience has also demonstrated that there can be a downside,” Hart said.
One example is that automation can fail, as happened in a deadly Washington, D.C., Metro crash in 2009. Hart said it’s important to address what happens if the design fails and whether a human operator can take over in time.
He also said the agency has learned that not every crash is caused by human error and that challenges can arise when a transportation system is made up of both human operators and automation.
It’s unclear just how the NTSB’s role will change as the nation’s fleet of vehicles becomes more autonomous and accidents decrease. But Hart, who emphasized that there still will be accidents with driverless cars, said the agency will likely only investigate crashes with “systematic implications” — like it does with highway accidents.
The Department of Transportation is working to unveil guidance for states on autonomous vehicles this summer, as well as release a rule requiring all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication later this year.
Hart batted down concerns that the NTSB would be left out of the rule-making process, saying that the agency has been at the forefront of advocating for automation for two decades.
“I’m not concerned about us being left out. We’re already in the conversation,” he said. “For about 20 years we have been pushing something that is a collision-avoidance system.”