Technological, Regulatory Innovation Needed to Ensure Safety in Autonomous Vehicle Research

Professor Missy Cummings says driverless cars currently lack the flexibility human drivers can provide in dangerous situations.
Professor Missy Cummings says driverless cars currently lack the flexibility human drivers can provide in dangerous situations.

The speed of driverless car development should also drive the speed of their regulation, argued Mary “Missy” Cummings April 4 in a briefing for congressional staff. 

Because of the recent Tesla and Uber autonomous vehicle incidents in California and Arizona respectively, the conversation focused on safety standards, reporting, and regulatory frameworks. 

Cummings, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab (HAL) at Duke, led the conversation with a collection of congressional staff members who work on the issue. She researches human-unmanned vehicle interaction, human-autonomous system collaboration, as well as the ethical and social impact of technology.

One of the limitations of driverless cars, Cummings said, is the lack of testing done on their computer systems. Sensors, cameras and radars placed on cars still cannot reliably identify actors on the road. By relying on probabilistic reasoning identification systems, autonomous vehicles can be vulnerable to passive hacking, such as the adding of stickers to a ‘stop’ sign to trick an autonomous vehicle to see a speed limit sign. 

“We would cross a double-yellow line to give a wide berth to a bicyclist but a rules-based car would not come out of the lines.”
- Missy Cummings
 

Autonomous vehicles also lack the intuition and ability of humans to bend rules. As an example Cummings offered how “we [humans] would cross a double-yellow line to give a wide berth to a bicyclist but a rules-based car would not come out of the lines.” Driverless vehicles’ computer algorithms may inhibit their ability to anticipate seemingly irrational human behavior such as giving extra room to a bicyclist or an 18-wheeler pulling a wide right turn. 

Regulatory agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lack expertise and a testing framework, Cummings said. NHTSA enters the innovation process with regulatory guideposts later than the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Aviation Administration, even though each agency regulates similarly dynamic and innovative industries. 

NHTSA, however, lacks the human capital and the government mandate to work with partners in industry to write rules for autonomous vehicle research and implementation, Cummings said. Contrary to a passive regulatory model, Cummings endorsed a national consortium of players in academia, government and industry to set standards and enforce transparency.

Reiterating known deficiencies, Cummings said “I know how brittle these software systems are… I would never put my kid in a driverless car.”