Public Safety is not a matter of Private Concern
In a recent article, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo attempts to play down fears of faulty software in car braking systems as a potential cause of traffic accidents. Citing numerous studies which conclude that “the overwhelming reason we get in crashes is driver error,” Manjoo reasons that “the less driving people do, the fewer people will die on the roads.”
While it may certainly be true that most crashes occur because of intoxication, distraction, or driver fatigue, and that computer controlled cars may decrease driver error, Manjoo doesn’t seem to see the obvious implication of his own assumptions — “opaque” and “inherently buggy” software which could endanger public safety should be subject to review.
If Toyota truly wanted to repair its public image and reputation for quality, it would make its source code available to anyone interested, not just a single government regulator. The public is far more likely to discover bugs and suggest improvements than a relatively small number of overworked and potentially inexperienced government employees. As a former patent examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office, I have seen the problems that arise when the amount of information and technical expertise available to the government is far outstripped by that of the private firms seeking government approval. Currently, the USPTO is attempting to deal with this imbalance of information by publishing patent applications before they are granted and by considering various proposals to incorporate public feedback as a means to improve patent quality. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should consider similar measures to allow the public to assist in its work. Continue reading.