Why only Crashes? Why we Must aim Higher with Autonomous Vehicle Data Sharing

A few months ago the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agency published a paper giving the world an idea of how it intends to regulate autonomous vehicles. One of the most interesting parts was the agency’s proposal that whenever such a vehicle crashes, data about the crash should be complied by the company responsible, and shared with the agency and other vendors.

The commonsense hope here is that if my self-driving Tesla crashes because a white truck coming in from the left appeared in a certain light to be invisible, then the fix for that bug should also be introduced to your self-driving Apple iCar, about to run into the same scenario. And of course it should.

But I think there is an opportunity and an obligation to do more.

When I was on the Business Development team at Google, I once had the idea to strike a deal on behalf of Google Maps with Waze — this was long before the acquisition, which made the point entirely moot — that would exchange traffic information between the apps. The simple but powerful idea was that if you drive down a road, navigating with Waze, and run into traffic, my Google Maps Navigation should alert me to take an alternate route, and vice-versa.

It’s a very simple exercise to figure out that consumers using both apps would have benefited from such a deal. Even if the exchange is not equal, i.e. Waze gives more data than it gets, still both apps would have had better information than they otherwise could have, leading to better routes, shorter trip times and less fuel consumption, which also would mean less carbon emissions. Who could possibly be against that?

Of course, in practice, a deal could never happen. Because the two products competed with each other, and used their data as a strategic weapon in that competition. Exchanging it would lead to commoditization. So whichever party is ahead, and has a data edge, would be foolish to sign a deal.

I’m worried that this is a market failure that will manifest itself on a 100x scale with autonomous cars. The only way theoretically to fix it is for government to mandate exchange of information. In the world of autonomous vehicles, we’re going to have Google, Apple, Tesla, BMW, Ford and god knows how many more vendors, all building up databases with very similar schemas. They’re all going to track much more fresh and accurate maps of the world. They’re all going to track crashes, near misses, and just miles and miles of road.

And they’re all going to keep it to themselves. Because whoever is ahead in miles driven, is going to be disincentivized to play the sharing game voluntarily. Passengers and pedestrians will be worse off. It’s not inconceivable that someone would get hit by a car that could have avoided crashing if only it had access to a slightly more fresh view of the world that was in a competitor’s silo.

So well done, NHTSA for starting with crashes. But regulators worldwide will need to come together to make a much more universal data sharing mandate a reality.