BlackBerry’s Chen pens defence of U.S. Senate’s autonomous vehicles bill

John Chen
John Chen

As the debate surrounding the safety of autonomous cars shifts into high gear, the head of BlackBerry is speaking out against driver monitoring systems.

BlackBerry CEO John Chen, whose firm develops much of its self-driving tech from its Kanata-based QNX outpost, wrote this week that the increasing concern about the safety of autonomous vehicles should not give way to reactionary legislation that would, in the long term, hamper the development and regulation of fully-autonomous cars.

His commentary accompanies a letter signed by 108 AV stakeholders – Blackberry included – and sent to the U.S. Senate in support of a proposed bill that would set technical standards for self-driving cars and their enabling infrastructure.

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Chen supports the act, dubbed AV START, which he believes will do more to ensure the safety of autonomous vehicles than installing driver monitoring systems in cars. He called such surveillance a “contradiction,” and suggested it could lead to privacy violations and shifting liability to drivers in accidents where they’re not truly at fault.

“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,” he wrote.

Reports say momentum has stalled on the AV START act, which has yet to be put to a vote in the Senate. Safety groups have been campaigning against the bill’s passage, citing the relatively high crash rates of self-driving cars being tested on public roads.

Chen insists he isn’t against safety regulations. He and the other signatories on the AV START letter view the act as the beginning of a global framework to safely introduce self-driving cars to public roads in an appropriate fashion, which they frame as a chance to significantly reduce on-road casualties.

The act, if passed, would institute technology neutrality between automakers and tech companies and clearly define jurisdictions between federal and state roles in regulating autonomous cars. It also puts a high value on cybersecurity in cars, a focus of BlackBerry’s work in vehicle operating systems.

Though BlackBerry has staked much of its future on its self-driving tech, Chen pumped the brakes on putting fully-autonomous cars on public streets in the near future.

“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,” he wrote.

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