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posted on March 27th, 2018

Alex Roy to the rescue

The media frenzy around autonomous vehicles has hit a new high since the fatal incident in Arizona on March 18. The death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driving Uber test car, the first of its kind, has brought escalated emotions and a sense of urgency to the conversation about the safety, legality, and morality of testing autonomous systems on public roads.

The looming advent of the autonomous vehicle has been worrying enthusiasts for years — in addition to concerns over safety and freedom, autonomy is a key mobility trend threatening the gearhead culture. In 2016, Alex Roy, editor-at-large at The Drive, wrote about the need for an NRA-style lobby for human driving, calling on car enthusiasts to “become ambassadors for driving rather than for cars — even if it’s for semi-autonomous driving.”

Just this month, Roy took it upon himself to launch the Human Driving Association “to get ahead of the issue and embrace technology where it makes sense.” The organization may have been borne out of enthusiasm for cars and driving, but the HDA looks at the threat to human driving through a wide-angle lense. Rather than fight stubbornly against the unrelenting march of technological progress, Roy believes developments should be proactively guided to maximize the proclaimed goals of autonomy while preserving freedom of choice.

“We’re not against self-driving, we’re not against safety, and we’re not pro-pollution,” Roy said in a recent interview. “But we are for a sane and rational approach to these things. An absolutist position doesn’t make sense.” In a rapidly progressing automotive landscape full of tech giants, legacy automakers, and software startups racing to build the perfect self-driving system, Alex Roy and his Human Driving Association hope to steady this turbulent transition into the seemingly inevitable autonomous future.

The Human Driving Manifesto

In a manifesto published in early March, Roy discussed the motivations for creating the HDA and outlined its goals, which are wide-ranging.

For Roy, defending human driving starts with improving human driving. “Human driving needs to be safer,” he says, “and it starts with personal responsibility.” His thinking is that driving is a privilege, and if people cannot prove that they can drive safely, their privilege should be revoked. “As people age and their senses slow, that’s when self-driving becomes really critical for mobility.”

In the Human Driving Manifesto, Roy argues for policies like periodic retesting, safety classes after serious accidents, and increased penalties for DUIs — all ideas that have proven controversial in the US.

Improved safety (ostensibly the main goal of autonomous vehicles) should come through combining improved driver quality with Advanced Drivers Assistance Systems (ADAS). These technologies, which include Forward Collision Warning and Lane Assist, can be used to combine the best of human and machine intelligence. The idea is that partial automation working in parallel with human driving can vastly improve safety while preserving the liberty afforded by the motorcar.

The HDA’s manifesto also stresses the need to redefine outdated SAE automation classifications and establish agreed-upon safety standards. Until such standards are set — no major players in the autonomous space have made a real effort — Roy sees that the onus is on us, the drivers. The HDA is here to push for smarter and safer driving until a majority of cars on the road are fully and safely autonomous, which will take decades.

“It’s clear to me that there needs to be an accepted definition of safety, and that metric has to be superior to human safety,” said Roy. An organization like NHTSA could oversee regulation of emerging autonomous technologies, but the general movement is decidedly anti-regulation.

Many believe or hope that companies will self-regulate, but Roy points out that none are taking the lead on setting safety metrics or defining language. “They are only hesitating because they are terrified. For their stock price they want to deploy, but if they deploy and have one or more big accidents, it’s bad for everyone. I fear that’s what it will take for people to consider regulations.”

Roy said that to me on March 16, two days before the Uber accident in Arizona. In response, Uber immediately pulled their self-driving cars from public roads. Toyota has also suspended autonomous vehicle testing in the US, despite having no connection to the recent fatality. And with all the voices calling on Congress and local governments to take control of the situation, it certainly seems like Roy’s prediction is coming true.

Uber’s self-driving Volvo XC90s (CNET)

Joining the conversation

As officials investigate the incident and sort out who or what is to blame, it’s evident that this is new territory for all involved. Decisions made after this incident will set precedents for the incidents to follow and influence how autonomous vehicle testing proceeds.

The Human Driving Association wants a seat at the table. Though currently little more than a mailing list of concerned enthusiasts, Roy’s fledgling organization aims to influence the discussions that will shape mobility for the next few decades. How do we define safe? How do we preserve freedom of movement without sacrificing safety? What policies will be most effective at making our roads safer?

According to Alex Roy, we could save lives tomorrow by strengthening licensing standards and better using existing safety tech. “We should fight for that now, and not wait for self-driving cars to ‘save us’ in the future.”

Steven is an avid car guy and editorial assistant at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.