Pumping the Brakes

Fast-tracking autonomous vehicle development exposes safety risks, technology gaps

Four months after Tesla’s autopilot feature caused the first known fatal car crash involving a self-driving vehicle last May, Amnon Shashua, CEO of former Tesla supplier Mobileye, said the automaker was "pushing the envelope in terms of safety" and that autopilot technology was "not designed to cover all possible crash situations in a safe manner."1

Rolling out technology that puts people’s lives in the hands of computers has consumer watchdogs asking whether the technology’s current state is safe enough for public use. If it’s not safe, how safe is safe enough? These concerns haven’t slowed the pace of development, however, as automakers and regulators continue to pour resources into making self-driving vehicles a reality sooner than later.

Safety in transition

Following the Tesla crash, Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, said that driver error is the cause of most traffic deaths and suggested people put the crash into context: "That same day there were 95 other fatalities … and every day since then there have been 95 more fatalities."2

This take on the situation may help explain the government-industry partnerships and plans that are making self-driving vehicles a seemingly serious priority. For example:

  • The United States this year committed $4 billion in its federal budget to self-driving vehicle research and promised to achieve zero road deaths by 2030, a commitment heavily reliant on self-driving vehicles. It also issued the first guidelines for safety expectations and rules for autonomous driving technology, such as how a vehicle should react if there’s a system failure, how it will communicate with other vehicles and vehicle cybersecurity.
  • California Department of Motor Vehicles last month revised its guidelines to be less restrictive on organizations by giving them more leeway for testing self-driving vehicles on public roads, allowing for more innovation and curbing misleading advertising for semi-autonomous features such as Tesla’s autopilot. The state prohibited use of terms "autonomous" or "self-driving" for such technology.3-5
  • Two automakers this year announced bold plans for their self-driving efforts: Ford and Volvo said they will release fully autonomous vehicles by 2021.
  • Uber gave its passengers a taste of what might come after launching self-driving taxis in September in Pittsburgh.6, 7

"We are in this weird transition," said Karl Brauer, senior editor at Kelley Blue Book, "It’s a tough balance for the regulators. You want to get this technology out, but you don’t want to move too quickly."8

Limitation concerns

Amid this flurry of activity aimed at fast-tracking autonomous vehicle deployment, consumer advocates have begun to speak up.

Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said she was skeptical of Uber’s self-driving taxi release in Pittsburgh because the state of Pennsylvania doesn’t have rules about what happens in case of a crash, and Uber isn’t required to share vehicles’ data with regulators.9

"They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs," Claybrook said. "Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car."10

Safety experts, too, said current self-driving technology has dangerous limitations, such as vision sensors being hampered by rain, snow and puddles, and misidentifying bridges for actual obstacles.11

Other popular safety features installed in today’s vehicles, such as emergency braking, lane-departure warnings and adaptive cruise control that rely on Lidar (light detection ranging) to map out a car’s surroundings, are having issues, too.

Glen De Vos, Delphi Automotive vice president of engineering, said these systems’ sensory gaps must be improved because they will be vital components in tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles, and drivers will expect them to always work reliably.12

De Vos and other engineers are still working out these systems’ kinks, such as how sensors blend their data for more accurate mapping; how vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communication will be made available to update road conditions; and systems’ abilities to recognize animals, bicyclists and pedestrians.13

Human factors

Uber’s self-driving taxis have two drivers on hand to take over in case of an emergency, but relying on humans to take control in case of a system failure could lead to deaths similar to that in the Tesla crash.

"If you have to rely on the human to see something and take action in anything less than several seconds, you are going to have an accident like we saw," said Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory.14

People typically struggle to maintain focus on boring tasks such monitoring systems that rarely fail, according to decades of research involving aviation and rail transportation. People’s minds wander until they find something more interesting to focus on. So the more reliable the system, the more potential for people’s attention to wane.15

Ford recently announced it will skip a step in autonomous vehicle development by not designing vehicles that require a driver to pay attention and take over if a vehicle misses an obstacle. "If you really want to drive autonomously, you need to have the capability in your vehicle to be able to make really hard decisions," said Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering.16

After Tesla’s fatal crash, the automaker said it had repeatedly reminded customers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and be attentive while using autopilot, but that didn’t stop many Tesla drivers, who ignored the advice and posted videos of themselves reading newspapers, drinking coffee and even riding on the roof while autopilot was engaged.17

In September, Tesla rolled out two over-the-air updates (downloaded by Tesla vehicles in the way smartphones update their apps) to improve autopilot’s safety. Radar was given a more active role because the old system could cause a Tesla to scrape against a vehicle partially in its lane or hit an obstacle that a vehicle ahead of it avoided.18 The update also caused autopilot to disengage if a driver removes his or her hands from the wheel.19

Making connections

With about 40,000 auto-related deaths in the United States last year—the largest year-over-year percentage increase in 50 years despite vehicles having more safety equipment than ever before—the motivation to push humans out of drivers’ seats is clear.20

Advocates of autonomous vehicles also point out less talked about benefits, such as having an internet connection similar to Tesla’s that can receive over-the-air updates.

"An over-the-air update could literally address a defect and (handle) 100% (of) recalls overnight," said Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the NHTSA. "That’s the kind of innovation you’re looking at."21

Consider a more practical issue that connected vehicles could help alleviate: traffic jams. In San Francisco, for example, road congestion could be reduced by 20 to 30% if drivers were connected with available parking spots through dashboard screens instead of searching the streets. Traffic data company Inrix already provides such a service for some of today’s luxury cars.22

Miles away

Self-driving technology has a long road ahead before fully autonomous vehicles can be possible. Several artificial intelligence (AI) systems are being trained to recognize the nearly infinite number of encounters their environments could throw at them. According to Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, AI systems that can interpret conditions that require near-human reasoning abilities pose a serious challenge to designers.23  

"It’s that last 10%, and then that last 1% of circumstances that gets very, very difficult to solve," Moore said. "Autonomous in-town driving, I’m still putting it at 2028."24

Nidhi Kalra, senior information scientist at RAND Corp. and co-director of its Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, said AI struggles with tasks a human considers common sense—such as how to react if a child runs in front of the car or a bicyclist is encountered on a narrow street. For instance, would the car decide to briefly go into oncoming traffic to avoid the person?25

"Makers of this technology need to achieve a level of performance we wouldn’t expect from a human driver," Kalra said. "What kind of risk we are willing to accept to gain some of the benefits of the technology? Being better than the average human is not good enough, even though that might save lives."26

—compiled by Tyler Gaskill, assistant editor


  1. Eric Auchard and Tova Cohen, "Mobileye Says Tesla Was ‘Pushing the Envelope in Terms of Safety,’" Reuters, Sept. 14, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/mobileye-safety.
  2. Brent Snavely, "Fatal Tesla Crash Leads to Auto Industry Soul Searching," Detroit Free Press, Aug. 2, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/auto-soul-search.
  3. Michael Strong, "Obama Administration Says Zero Road Deaths in 30 Years," Thedetroitbureau.com, Oct. 5, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/road-deaths-qp.
  4. Cecilia Kang, "Self-Driving Cars Gain Powerful Ally: The Government," New York Times, Sept. 19, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/nyt-feds-automated.
  5. Alexandria Sage, "California Proposes Giving More Freedom to Test Self-Driving Cars," Reuters, Sept. 30, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/ca-self-driving.
  6. Kang, "Self-Driving Cars Gain Powerful Ally: The Government," see reference 4.
  7. Dawn Allcot, "Volvo Announces Ambitious Plans to Sell Self-Driving Cars," Electonics360, Oct. 4, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/volvo-selfdriving-qp.
  8. Kang, "Self-Driving Cars Gain Powerful Ally: The Government," see reference 4.
  9. Elizabeth Dwoskin and Brian Fung, "For Some Safety Experts, Uber’s Self-Driving Taxi Test Isn’t Something to Hail," Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/wp-hail-uber.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Dave Guilford, "Safety Technology Still Needs Work," Automotive News, Aug. 29, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/tech-needs-work.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hamilton Spectator, "Plans for Self-Driving Cars Have Pitfall: The Human Brain," Hamilton Spectator, July 19, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/human-pitfall-qp.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Katie Burke, "Detroit 3 Will Skip a Step in Autonomy," Automotive News, Sept. 26, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/qp-skipping-step.
  17. Ryan Bradley, "10 Breakthrough Technologies," MIT Technology Review, http://tinyurl.com/mit-autopilot.
  18. Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin, "Tesla Update Halts Automatic Steering If Driver Inattentive," Yahoo.com, Sept. 22, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/tesla-update-auto.
  19. Brian Fung, "Tesla Is Using This Familiar Technology to Make Its Autopilot Safer," Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/wp-tesla-radar.
  20. Kang, "Self-Driving Cars Gain Powerful Ally: The Government," see reference 4.
  21. Matt McFarland, "U.S. Government Releases Safety Guidelines for Self-Driving Cars," CNNMoney.com, Sept. 20, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/cnn-self-driving.
  22. Doug Newcomb, "Inrix Expands Parking Service to More Mercedes-Benz Vehicles, Others on the Horizon," Forbes, Sept. 28, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/forbes-traffic.
  23. Alan Ohnsman, "Warning: Driverless Cars Are Farther Than They Appear," Forbes, Sept. 28, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/self-driving-distance.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.


Poll: Better Workflows Essential to Implement Healthcare Technology

Designing workflows that improve efficiency and technology adoption should be a top priority to help healthcare organizations strengthen the quality of their technology implementation, according to a recent ASQ poll of U.S. healthcare quality improvement professionals.

According to results of the online poll of more than 170 ASQ members in the healthcare quality profession, 78% said improving workflow efficiency is the No. 1 way organizations can improve the quality of healthcare technology implementation. Priority should be given to nurturing strong organizational leaders who champion healthcare technology initiatives, 71% of respondents said.

According to respondents, these technologies can have the most impact on patient experience and care coordination:

  • Incorporation of wearable sensors, remote patient monitoring and other caregiver collaboration tools (71% of respondents).
  • Smartphones, tablets and applications providing a wealth of information for physicians and other clinicians (69%).
  • Online communications along every step of the patient process—for example, website, registration and payment (69%).

Survey respondents said many of the factors that would improve healthcare technology have hurdles that make implementation prohibitive for healthcare organizations, including:

  • Resistance to change from physicians and staff due to perceived impact on time and workflow and unwillingness to learn new skills (70% of respondents).
  • High costs of implementing IT infrastructure and services, and unproven return on investment (64%).
  • Problems with complex new devices, poor interface between multiple technologies and the haphazard introduction of new devices that could cause patient errors (61%).

For more details from the survey, visit http://asq.org/newsroom/news-releases/2016/20160809-improving-healthcare-it-policy.html.

ASQ News

EDUCATION CONFERENCE ASQ’s Education Division is hosting a conference and workshop Nov. 11-13 in Houston. Global educators and professionals are invited to attend the three-day event that focuses on K-12, higher education, workforce development, and science, technology, engineering and math. The theme of this year’s conference is "Evolving the Education Experience." For more information, visit http://asq.org/conferences/quality-education.

LEAN AND SIX SIGMA EVENT ASQ’s Lean and Six Sigma Conference will be held Feb. 27-28, 2017, in Phoenix. The theme of this year’s conference is "Leading the Culture of Excellence Through Lean and Six Sigma." Early-bird pricing ends Jan. 6, 2017. For more information, visit http://asq.org/conferences/six-sigma.

ANAB GETS APPROVAL The InterAmerican Accreditation Cooperation (IAAC) recently approved the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) as a member of the IAAC multilateral recognition arrangement for accreditation of medical devices management systems certification bodies. IAAC is a regional association of accreditation bodies whose mission it is to promote cooperation among accreditation bodies and interested parties of the Americas, aiming at the development of conformity assessment structures to achieve the improvement of products, processes and services. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/anab-iaac-member.

Short Runs

FEEDBACK IS BEING sought on a self-assessment tool that aims to help organizations better understand the effectiveness of their cybersecurity risk management efforts. The U.S. Commerce Department National Institute of Standards and Technology released the draft Baldrige Cybersecurity Excellence Builder in September. For more information about the tool, visit www.nist.gov/cyberframework. Email comments before Dec. 15 at baldrigecybersecurity@nist.gov.

THE INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission’s ISO/IEC 17025:2005 General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories was added to the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science’s registry. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/17025-added.

NEXT YEAR’S Engineers Week is scheduled for Feb. 19-25. Through different activities and events, the week aims to celebrate how engineers make a difference and to increase public dialogue about the need for engineers. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/2017-eng-week.


Date in Quality History

QP looks back on a person or event that made a difference in the history of quality.

Nov. 19, 1925

Henri Fayol, a French mining engineer and management theorist, died on this date. Many call Fayol one of the most influential contributors to modern concepts of management and a key figure in the classic school of management theory.

Fayol developed a general theory of business administration, also known as Fayolism, which included 14 principles of management: division of work, authority, discipline, unity of command, unity of direction, subordination of individual interest, renumeration, centralization, line of authority, order, equity, stability of tenure of personnel, initiative and esprit de corps (employee morale).


  1. Analytic Technologies, www.analytictech.com/mb021/fayol.htm.
  2. 12Manage, "14 Principles of Management (Henri Fayol)," http://tinyurl.com/history-fayol.

Who’s Who in Q

NAME: Sue Evans.

RESIDENCE: Arlington, VA.

EDUCATION: Doctorate in industrial and operations engineering from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

INTRODUCTION TO QUALITY: From a systems perspective, Evans was first introduced to quality in graduate school. Measuring and managing for quality, including statistical quality control, was part of the curriculum. The courses brought the quantitative side of quality to light. Combining the quantitative side of quality systems with the human side of systems design and implementation reinforced to Evans the importance of considering the relationship between people, work, organizations and technology in effectively implementing quality systems. 

CURRENT JOB: President and CEO of Evans Inc., which specializes in IT management, custom internet applications, ergonomic analysis and user/system support.

PREVIOUS JOBS: As a Ford Fellow conducting research for her doctorate, Evans visited many Ford manufacturing plants around Detroit and was struck by the role good ergonomics design in the workplace could play in quality outcomes, as well as the team focus on quality throughout the manufacturing process. This team focus engaged management and the employees’ union in a shared vision and outcome involving collaborative problem solving—from product to manufacturing design—reinforcing her belief that quality is not a number but a system.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: Certified professional ergonomist from the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics.

RECENT HONORS: Awarded the small business entrepreneur of the year in 2016 from the Women in Technology organization; named the alumna of the year in 2016 by Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee; included in the Washington Business Journal’s "Women Who Mean Business" in 2015; received SmartCEO’s Brava Award in 2014, which honors top women CEOs. 

PUBLISHED WORKS: Several articles, presentations and book chapters related to ergonomics.

FAVORITE WAYS TO RELAX: Rebuilding a family lake cottage in Wisconsin and spending time in San Francisco with her grandson.

QUALITY QUOTE: Quality is not a number but a system—and a human-centered quality system is essential for an optimal return on investment.

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