- - Monday, September 11, 2017


The freedom of the open road holds a magnetic appeal for Americans, quickening like the flood when Henry Ford unleashed his Model T, but exhilaration can’t be traded for the convenience of the “safety” of a car that drives itself. Such a car is a measure of progress only if it works.

Seeing is believing, and it’s likely to take a little time for America’s 220 million drivers to get over the sight of an approaching car with no one — or worse, the family golden retriever — behind the wheel. How long that takes depends on the automobile manufacturers. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao will visit Michigan Tuesday, where she is expected to disclose revised federal guidelines during a visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the deployment of self-driving automobiles.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week approved — unanimously — the Self-Drive Act, which would pave the highway for such cars and to bar the several states from getting in the way. The act would exempt up to 25,000 self-driving vehicles from certain safety standards during the first year, 50,000 the second year, and rising to 100,000 by the third year. The Senate, which is there to cool House enthusiasm, has yet to act.

This exemption is jarring to the cautious and thoughtful, and highway safety advocates agree. “The autonomous vehicle bill just passed by the House leaves a Wild West without adequate safety protections for consumers,” observes Consumer Watchdog. “It pre-empts any state safety standards, but there are none at the national level.”

The push for so-called “highly automated vehicles” has been gathering momentum for several years as information technology giants such as Google and Alphabet, and automakers including GM, Ford and Tesla, have engaged in frenzied competition to perfect the technology to guide the nation’s fleet of private and commercial vehicles safely so occupants are free to enjoy the scenery. Pilot programs have been underway in numerous locations, including Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, San Francisco and Arizona, but human drivers must be aboard and ready to take the wheel.

There’s always a ready market for novelty, but the point of driverless vehicles isn’t to provide every family with a silicon chauffeur. It’s the urgency to eliminate the hazards of distracted drivers reading an incoming text message, or dealing with a lap-full of spilled coffee. With highway fatalities rising 14 percent between 2014 and 2016, there’s a clear need for a reduction in human error.

The news that the credit agency Equifax was the target of a cyberattack that exposed the personal information of 143 million customers is a needed reminder that the careless and the evil are always out there looking to cause mischief. Self-driving cars using an intelligent Web-based guidance system will surely tempt hackers.

The Self-Drive Act requires manufacturers to submit schemes to detect and respond to cyber-attacks, false messages or bogus vehicle control commands. As technology advances, drivers willing to turn over the steering wheel to invisible hands should remember that human ingenuity, remarkable as it is, always has to deal with fallibility.

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