Federal Action Is Needed to Maintain Trust in Automated Vehicle Technology Commentary
Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons
Federal Action Is Needed to Maintain Trust in Automated Vehicle Technology

Many federal legislators believe the United States needs a robust automated vehicle industry to promote our national interests in diverse areas—from reducing traffic deaths and cutting greenhouse gases to creating opportunities for the mobility challenged. But the public must trust this technology before it can be successfully adopted. Current events demonstrate that the automated vehicle industry’s playbook pushes aggressive growth at the risk of losing public trust.

The headlines from San Francisco reveal a plethora of incidents that needlessly erode trust in automated vehicle technology—from an AV getting stuck in wet cement to an injury-causing collision with a firetruck. Embarrassment is acute because these incidents follow California Public Utilities Commission approval of expanded robotaxi operations in the face of vocal objections by the City of San Francisco and its first responders. This situation was set up by a nationwide campaign to establish state regulations that are highly favorable to the industry, including preempting local governments from having control over robotaxi fleets on their own city streets. (Not all companies act in a united front here, but the net effect is reasonably characterized as an industry trend.)

An industry does not develop trust by loud insistence that it is trustworthy. Rather, trust follows from conduct that earns trust. The incidents in San Francisco have not yet caused a collapse of trust because thankfully there have not yet been any fatalities. Rather, the incidents show a disconnect between industry safety rhetoric of superhuman robot drivers already saving lives and the reality of still-maturing technology. The contrast subjects the industry to public ridicule.

Industry actions that erode trust include: a failure to publicly commit to follow consensus industry safety standards; repeatedly making demonstrably misleading claims (e.g. “automated vehicles are already saving lives because they are safer than human drivers“); tone-deaf scare tactics (e.g. an ad with the national traffic death toll attributed solely to human drivers with a picture of a presumably safer robotaxi); lobbying for states to override any possibility of local governments to manage potentially risky automated vehicle operations; unwillingness to engage in needed law reform regarding fair determination of liability for crashes; and failure to commit to equitable testing plans to protect vulnerable communities during public road testing.

We have seen this same bad movie before with the emergence of the railroad industry. The railroads started out as public darlings but squandered their goodwill with a series of untrustworthy actions that resulted in public distrust and the overregulation that followed. They opposed the air brake, which allowed trains to stop reliably (suggesting the public get out of the way!); they opposed the automatic coupler, which prevented rail workers from losing hands and fingers (the workers needed to be more careful!); they opposed steel rail cars as too expensive (wooden cars collapse in head on collisions, crushing all occupants!); and they conducted accident investigations in secret. The excessive wealth and conspicuous consumption of the Robber Barons iced the cake. The parallels with the modern AV industry are striking.

It is hard to earn trust, but it is easy to lose it (and even harder to regain it once lost). We believe that loss of trust and regulatory backlash in the rail industry a century ago played its part in the dramatically worse state of rail in the United States compared to other countries. The AV industry’s actions risk the same fate.

If the AV industry matters to federal legislators, they need to intervene to restore a balanced playing field that incentivizes the industry to act in a more trustworthy way with a few signature regulatory actions: require that industry follow consensus safety standards as already proposed by NHTSA in December 2020 (NHTSA-2020-0106); pass legislation recognizing that AVs owe a duty of care to other road users (with manufacturer responsibility); mandate more transparent crash data reporting requirements; and ensure that local governments have a limited ability to oversee AV operations responsive to local conditions, including testing plan equity.

America leads the world in technology development. But the public likely will turn against dissembling corporations seen to be taking unfair advantage of individual citizens, while depriving them of a voice in their own public safety. Federal legislation might provide a course correction. A myopic Robber Baron business philosophy should not erode trust in this technology before it has had time to safely prove its worth.


William H. Widen is a Professor at University of Miami School of Law, Coral Gables, Florida, researching the regulatory implications of autonomous vehicles. Philip Koopman is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has been working on self-driving car safety for more than 25 years.


Suggested citation: William H. Widen and Philip Koopman, Federal Action Is Needed to Maintain Trust in Automated Vehicle Technology, JURIST – Academic Commentary, September 7, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/09/widen-koopman-federal-action-automated-vehicles/.

This article was prepared for publication by Hayley Behal, JURIST Commentary Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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