Driverless car tests have started on I-380

Illustration courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation

Highway tests of driverless cars have begun on Interstate 380, between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowa Department of Transportation Director Mark Lowe said in an interview with Radio Iowa earlier this week. But this first phase of the testing is likely to disappoint anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of something futuristic while commuting between the two cities.

Drivers — or “pilots,” as Lowe called them — are still fully in control of the cars in this phase. The test involves a hand-free mobile device in the car broadcasting information to the driver.

“That will basically help them see ahead of the horizon, or beyond the horizon is the best way to put it, so that we’re warning them of the things they need to know to make good driving decisions before they actually get there, and they can make better choices and safer choices, and then, the next stage of that will be to start to feed that into the vehicle system itself,” Lowe told Radio Iowa.

Lowe said the point of these tests is to learn “the data that vehicles need to consume in order to be able to function” on a highway.

In January, the Obama administration designated the local I-380 corridor as one of 10 automated vehicle proving grounds around nation. Even before this designation, the IDOT was making preparations to test driverless cars on that stretch of highway. The agency hired HERE — a mapping company owned by BMW, Audi and Daimler — to map the approximately 30 miles of highway between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids in October 2016.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for developing safety and performance standards for automated driving systems (ADS). In September 2016, the DOT released the first set of regulatory guidelines for ADS vehicles, which contained a 15-point safety assessment ADS manufacturers were supposed to follow. Manufacturers were to use the 15 points to create assessments of their systems that would be submitted to the DOT for review.

That changed under the Trump administration. In September, the DOT issued a new version of the guidelines, in which the number of safety considerations have been reduced from 15 to 12. The new DOT document emphasizes that compliance with the guidelines is voluntary, and that safety assessments made by companies are “not subject to Federal approval.”

Perhaps the most interesting changes the Trump administration made to the ADS guidelines involve the elimination of the sections on ethical considerations and consumer privacy.

In 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle offered a concise summary of the ethical considerations in the DOT guidelines:

Some of the ethical decisions that you, as a driver, may have never thought about will have to be programmed into an autonomous car’s capabilities and reported to federal regulators.

Such as: Should a car focus on protecting its driver in a crash, or the drivers in another car? Should a car be allowed to circumvent certain traffic rules? In the event of a crash, should a car focus on minimizing the number of people it hits — or minimizing hitting the most vulnerable person, like a baby?

Consumer privacy considerations included how and what kind of information — for example, biometrics, driving habits and locations visited — manufacturers and other business entities can collect from people using a vehicle with ADS, and if that data can be sold to third parties.

In place of those two sections, the new version of the guidelines has a footnote stating the DOT “acknowledges that Privacy and Ethical Considerations are also important elements for entities to deliberate.” The footnote contains a link to a DOT webpage that states the agency is interested in considering the topics.