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Secretary Of Transportation: 'I See The Future' When I'm In A Self-Driving Car


We begin today with this week's edition of All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: To those of you listening in your car right now or who might, at some point, drive a car, here's a question. Would you rather have a computer do the driving for you? Well, that's what we asked these drivers.






UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Absolutely not.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yes, if that computer is accurate and, you know, there's no bugs in it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I would prefer to be in control of it myself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Computer messes up - ain't nothing like the human brain.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I'd want to be in control.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I'd rather know what's going on with my car.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Don't trust it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: I want to focus on the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: I enjoy the ride to work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: I just don't like the idea.

SIEGEL: Motorists in Washington, D.C., all at the wheel - we heard Mohammad Asiri (ph), Dwight Harpen (ph), Andrew Chen (ph), Will Rowe (ph), Terry Caldwell (ph), Jeanette Stubbs (ph), Irene Billips (ph), Tanya Tyson (ph) and Robert Gray (ph). A University of Michigan survey found that about 90 percent of Americans have some concerns about the concept of self-driving cars, but most also say that they do want some aspects of the car to be automated. Whatever Americans think, the legal and regulatory groundwork is being laid right now for a drastically different transportation landscape in which we ride around in cars that drive themselves.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Surely within the next 10 years.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: As early as five years.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: Over the next three to five years.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #14: I have a 12-year-old son, and the goal is to get this out into the world before he has to get his driver's license.

SIEGEL: We've been talking to some big players in that coming self-driving reality, and we'll be hearing from them this week. We'll start at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

ANTHONY FOXX: I've actually ridden in a self-driving car, and I see the future when I'm in one.

SIEGEL: That's Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

FOXX: We actually have some studies that some private-sector folks have done suggesting that the combination of autonomous and connected vehicles would potentially reduce our fatalities by 80 percent. That's a pretty significant number when you consider we have almost 33,000 fatalities on the road every year.

SIEGEL: I wanted to pursue a little bit with you - I want to pursue a bit what autonomy or self-driving means. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, sent a letter to Google this month, saying that the self-driving system can be considered the driver of a self-driving car. What does that mean?

FOXX: Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration basically sets federal standards for what defines a vehicle. And hereto for, there's been separation between the concept of who the driver is and what the vehicle is. And our interpretation is now allowing the system that is operated by a driverless car to be considered as the driver.

SIEGEL: Secretary Foxx, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed a regulation. Self-driving cars should be required to have a licensed driver inside. Is that a good principle?

FOXX: Yeah. I mean, I think, obviously, where technology is today, that is definitely a good principle. And of course, we would not suggest putting something unsafe on the road. That's why we have federal motor vehicle standards in the first place. And by the way, our interpretation of a driver as, you know, one of these driverless system doesn't mean that the car itself meets all of our standards. There are still some questions that have to be resolved by the technology companies as to whether those vehicles meet our standards.

SIEGEL: But do you assume that the presence a licensed driver inside a self-driving car means someone sitting in the driver seat and being there as an ever-ready backup system in case the self-driving car doesn't get it right?

FOXX: Well, let me put it this way. We've promised the industry over the next six months to provide as many of the answers to these questions as we can. I can't tell you definitively today that our view will be that having a licensed driver in the car is a requirement or should be a requirement of operating a driverless car. These are questions that we are actually trying to get our arms around today.

SIEGEL: What are some of the other questions as you plan to provide guidelines also to the states later this year? What are some of the questions you're still trying to get your arms around like that one?

FOXX: (Laughter) Well, you know, let's think about what it takes to get a driver's license in the first place. When I came out of high school, I was raring to go get my driver's license, and the expectation at that time was that the driver would be fully engaged a hundred percent of the time when he or she was operating the vehicle. In a world where the vehicle is doing more of the driving task, we are also asking ourselves questions as to how you train people to drive in cars like that.

SIEGEL: We seem to be taking several steps toward much more sophisticated automated vehicles. One of the questions facing your department, the U.S. Department of Transportation, this year has been the idea of a rearview mirror that could flip to a setting in which it's not a physical mirror; it's a screen displaying the images from a rearview camera.

FOXX: Yeah. We've asked the industry to give us innovations that they think can and should be part of vehicles. GM, for example, has requested that we interpret our federal safety standards to allow for the camera you described, and today, we are issuing guidance that this technology does qualify under our current standards.

SIEGEL: Historically, the government doesn't test vehicles. It sets requirements and standards and expects manufacturers to certify that they meet those requirements. In this area of relatively unknown technologies, of computer piloted cars, should government regulators get more hands-on, do some more riding around in these cars?

FOXX: That's one of the things that's interesting about where we are, is, we need to be at the leading edge of this revolution in technology and transportation, and our NHTSA department needs to be at the table as this technology is coming into place, you know? Under our old methodology, we would've waited for an auto company to come up with a driverless car, and we would've had to learn the entire system at one time. And that would've taken years and years, and we wouldn't have been as familiar with it. The way we're doing it now, taking interpretations like the interpretation we made about GM's rearview mirrors, the interpretation about the car being effectively the driver under our safety standards - these interpretations are also teaching us. And so as we learn, we're going to be better and better at being able to keep pace with innovation, and I think safety will benefit as a result.

SIEGEL: Tonight during rush hour, being in the cars that you've been in - the self-driving cars - would you feel confident driving home again or being driven home by a self-driving car?

FOXX: (Laughter) I wouldn't say so, not yet. I think we've still got some ways to go, but I think it is within our line of sites.

SIEGEL: That's U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Fox. Secretary Foxx, thanks for talking with us.

FOXX: Hey, thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And tomorrow, we'll hear from Brian Soublet, deputy director and chief legal counsel for the California DMV.

BRIAN SOUBLET: The person is the backup to the automated systems. We don't want to see vehicles just stopping in the roadway. There has to be some contemplation of how the vehicle would be controlled such that it doesn't become a danger to other motorists.

SIEGEL: That's tomorrow as we hear more about the coming days of the self-driving car. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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