INTERSECT17’s theme, “It’s time we had the talk,” is about generating new thought and sometimes controversial ideas.

In a panel discussion entitled “Why ITS Policy Matters,” when asked to discuss where we are on the path to fully autonomous vehicles, Alain Kornhauser, Director of Princeton University’s Program in Transportation responded, “We’re still at zero.” While many technical issues surrounding driverless vehicles have been solved, social issues including liability, privacy and the increasing threat of a hack or full scale cyber-attack threat are incredibly polarizing, and will require deep discussion and compromise to be resolved.

In a lively discussion moderated by Alliance for Transportation Innovation CEO, Paul Brubaker, other panelists were somewhat more optimistic citing the safety and mobility benefits of full autonomy as well as a variety of other advantages. Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters who served during the Bush (43) administration told a very personal story about her aging father. “I had to personally take away his driver’s license and I tell people he began to die that day,” she said. Highlighting the benefit of a vehicle that drives itself, she said, “That doesn’t have to be the case in the future.”

Patrick Son, Managing Director of the National Operations Center of Excellence sees overcoming the unresolved issues as a collaborative effort. “Transportation is not going to resolve this,” he said reminding the audience that many industries are also facing cyber and liability issues. “There’s a convergence occurring on how we’re going to get there.”

Panelists agreed that the safety implications of driverless vehicles are too profound to be held back by unresolved issues suggesting they will be fixed in legislation and regulation. “Safety is number one,” said Kornhauser. “Why is the private sector involved in all of this? It’s safety.” He added that reducing the number of fatalities in crashes from 40,000 deaths on America’s roads each year down to 4,000 will require advanced technology, but also questioned why car manufacturers are sending a mixed safety message. “My speedometer in my car shows 160 miles per hour. That’s irresponsible,” he said.

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