Mark Rosekind didn't explicitly mention the death of Joshua Brown in his speech.
The past few days have seen several stories about governments allegedly reacting to the first fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle. First Germany spoke out in favor of black boxes, and then China suspended autonomous testing on public roads until the government puts new laws into place. And now, the United States is speaking out.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind (above) made his comments today in San Francisco, at the 2016 Automated Vehicle Symposium. Arguing that autonomous vehicles are a key element of improving safety on American roads – without explicitly mentioning the investigation into Joshua Brown's death behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S – Rosekind was resolute in his support of the burgeoning industry.
"I can tell you that no one incident will derail the Department of Transportation and NHTSA from its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new lifesaving technologies," Rosekind said. He added that "when something goes wrong, or a highly automated vehicle encounters an edge case – something it hasn't been programmed to deal with – that data can be taken, analyzed, and then the lessons can be shared with more than the rest of that vehicle fleet."
But when will we be at a point where those lessons have been learned and autonomous cars will "be safe enough?" "We lost 35,200 lives on our roads last year. We are in a bad place. This is a bad situation, and we should be desperate for new tools that will help us save lives," Rosekind said. "If we wait for perfect, we'll be waiting for a very, very long time. How many lives might we be losing while we wait? Ones that could otherwise be saved by a thoughtful but determined approach to bring lifesaving technologies to the road."
But while Rosekind was quick to express his (and NHTSA's) support for autonomous vehicles, he made it clear Uncle Sam was only going to sit back and watch. "The federal government is not here to pick the winners and losers of this technology," Rosekind said. "We are neutral on the question of incremental technological development versus skipping to full automation. Our mission is not to design the future, but instead lay the framework, a framework that will speed the development and deployment of technologies with significant lifesaving potential. We are open to anything that fulfills that mission."
But Rosekind was quick to add that NHTSA's hands-off approach doesn't equate to a free-for-all in the pursuit of the autonomous car. "Let me be clear: Strong safety regulations absolutely will continue to be an important part of NHTSA's safety mission, and there will, without question, be regulations on highly automated vehicles in the future," Rosekind said. "But those expecting DOT and NHTSA to issue 16,000 pages of regulations in the coming weeks will be disappointed, or perhaps more likely, relieved."