DETROIT -- Mark Rosekind, in his final public appearance as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reaffirmed his support for autonomous-vehicle technology as an important tool to combat highway fatalities.
But he cautioned that the march of technology also must be accompanied by serious attention to human factors, including public trust in the systems, the transparency of the technology, cybersecurity concerns and how computer-driven vehicles will interact with human-driven cars on the road.
Rosekind, an expert on fatigue and the human factors that lead to accidents, cited the reluctance of his 86-year-old mother and 96-year-old mother-in-law -- "the perfect focus group" for some of the mobility solutions promised by autonomous technology -- to accept the idea of a self-driving car as evidence that the industry needs to do more than just refine the technology.
"I really believe there needs to be more of a focus on this human side," Rosekind told reporters last week on the sidelines of the Automotive News World Congress here. "There hasn't been much yet on the acceptance by people to actually want to use [it], whether it's a service or their own vehicle."
In September, the agency issued proposed rules governing the rollout of autonomous vehicles. The policies envisioned a broader role for federal authorities in vetting vehicles with the most advanced autonomous technology, as they are being developed and tested.
The proposed rules, he said, would help spur innovation and generate more data to help the industry refine the technology around certain proven standards. The documentation and transparency requirements in the proposed policy would also boost consumer confidence in the technology, he said.
"One of the biggest issues that could stop all of this is people's trust in these automated systems," he said, adding: "Everything you can do to be transparent and public about what you're doing for safety benefits everybody."
Rosekind, who leaves office after a two-year tenure at the agency, cautioned against rushing to conclusions about how autonomous technology would reorder society, but he said the time to sort through provocative questions is now, to ensure that the promise of the technology isn't derailed by irrational fears.
"This is not something that we're going to have tomorrow or even in the next two or three decades," he said. "One of the biggest things I'm trying to get people to focus on is the transition. We're talking about potentially two or three decades where humans are driving right next to autonomous vehicles."
He added: "We're going to have to think about a much more intricate, complicated model of what the future looks like than people just being purist."