This safety plan would 'defeat the purpose' of self-driving cars

  • Self-driving car technology has many potential benefits but recent fatal crashes are causing concern.
  • Some are calling for driver monitoring systems to ensure that drivers are alert and have their eyes on the road, even when a vehicle is in self-driving mode.
  • Such systems defeat the purpose. Improved technology and smart regulation like the AV START Act introduced by Senator John Thune are what's needed to make driverless cars safe.
John Chen, chief executive officer of BlackBerry Ltd.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
John Chen, chief executive officer of BlackBerry Ltd.

Autonomous vehicles, in particular self-driving cars, have been generating a great deal of buzz in the market over the past few years. The technology has many potential benefits for individuals, the environment and the economy.

Recently however, as a consequence of tragic accidents caused by cars in self-driving mode, an irrational discussion is surfacing.

Some are calling for driverless cars to require driver monitoring systems. These systems would ensure that drivers of driverless cars – a contradiction in terms – are alert and have their eyes on the road at all times, even when a vehicle is in self-driving mode.

Driver monitoring systems may be necessary during self-driving vehicle testing and can benefit driver operated vehicles on the road today but, the requirement for production ready autonomous vehicles to be equipped with the systems is a different ask and one that I disagree with.

"The AV START Act would be a good place to begin with the ultimate goal being to have a globally harmonized policy."

Arguably, the most important benefit of self-driving vehicles is safety. Globally over a million people are killed each year in vehicle accidents and fifty million more are injured, with almost all of the accidents attributable to human error.

Self-driving vehicles are poised to significantly reduce the number of road accidents and deaths by eliminating human drivers and therefore human error. This translates to positive GDP growth; if the number of road deaths in China were halved, for example, it is estimated that they would see a 15 percent increase in their GDP. ‎

Driver monitoring systems cannot be the safety solution for autonomous vehicles. If vehicles in self-driving mode are made to require driver intervention for accident prevention, it defeats the core purpose of the technology and puts the safety problem back on the table.

As well it could make the driver liable for any accidents, even those that occur when the vehicle is in self-driving mode.

The fatal accidents that have occurred in self-driving cars should instead serve as a wake-up call to the fact that, despite the hype and haste of the market to make autonomous vehicles available for sale, we have more work to do to make the technology safe.

Equally important, considerable effort must be put in by the private and public sectors in defining safety regulations and policies.

If self-driving vehicles continue to be developed and allowed on the road without safety standards being put in place by the federal government there are real risks. Safety must be the number one priority for autonomous vehicles.

Meeting standards

Governments across different countries have been asked by a number of industry players, including trade groups and consumer groups, to develop regulations that define what 'safe' and 'secure' means for a driverless vehicle. The AV START Act would be a good place to begin with the ultimate goal being to have a globally harmonized policy.

The AV START Act, introduced by Senators John Thune and Gary Peters in September 2017, calls for the federal government to develop performance standards for autonomous vehicles.

Requirements of the proposed framework include having vehicles meet standards of hardware and software system safety – for instance how a vehicle communicates with infrastructure such as traffic signals and pavement markings – and supply chain cybersecurity measures with mechanisms to alert passengers of vulnerabilities.

Federal government regulations and safety standards are key to delivering the much needed focus on safety and bringing the envisioned benefits of autonomous vehicles to fruition. Without them the technology is in danger of being made available before it is ready.

Importantly, the safety buck does not stop once the car has been built. Sophisticated tools and infrastructure are a must have to monitor a vehicles security position in-field. In today's increasingly connected world the cybersecurity landscape is changing constantly, making it important to scan a vehicle's software for vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis even after it has left the manufacturer.

Additionally, driver monitoring poses privacy concerns. The systems cannot only assess and log if you are doing something other than looking at the road, they can also evaluate how tired you are and determine your mood and emotions through constant visual and vocal assessment. The possibilities this would present to players, such as hackers and insurance firms, will do little to benefit you.

As the future is brought to reality, your security and safety must be put at the forefront.

Commentary by John Chen, executive chairman and CEO of BlackBerry. BlackBerry is currently developing software for next-generation driverless cars and has partnered with companies such as Bosch, Denso, Nvidia and China's Baidu to work on automotive software. Follow him on Twitter @ JohnChen.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.