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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Americans are driving more recklessly, with deadly consequences. The best way to reverse the trend could be to let robots do the driving, provided the technology is rolled out safely.

Why it matters: After decades of improvement, U.S. traffic deaths are climbing again, even though vehicles are safer than ever. An estimated 20,160 people died in vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021, an 18% spike over last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

  • Data shows reckless behavior — everything from speeding and not wearing seat belts to driving while drunk or high — played a big factor.
  • The crisis is drawing urgent attention to the potential role of vehicle automation in making roads safer and how quickly — or not — it can be adopted.

Driving the news: Three former safety officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation — all now execs at self-driving tech companies they once regulated — sounded the alarm about traffic deaths at a virtual panel I moderated Wednesday sponsored by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry trade group.

  • Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at Zoox, was NHTSA administrator in 2015 and 2016.
  • James Owens, head of regulatory for Nuro, was deputy NHTSA administrator from Sept. 2019 to Jan. 2021.
  • Nat Beuse, vice president of safety at Aurora, oversaw vehicle safety research for DOT from 2007 to 2018.

What they're saying: "If we really want to make a difference here, technology is the tool," said Rosekind.

Yes, but: People are confused about vehicle automation, and the panelists agreed that industry and government need to do a better job of educating people and building public trust in the various technologies.

  • Automated driving systems allow vehicles to fully drive themselves under certain circumstances on prescribed roads.
  • ADAS (advanced driver assistance system) includes everything from life-saving emergency-braking technology to convenience features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. Drivers are still in command of the vehicle, however.
  • In the public discourse, all these systems get blurred, making it harder to build trust in the technology.
  • "We have to be very, very clear about what we're talking about," said Beuse, who said commonly used engineering descriptions for the five levels of autonomy only confused people.

There's also a potential conflict between states and the federal government over how to regulate these increasingly automated vehicles.

  • The feds traditionally regulate vehicle technology, and states regulate vehicle operations (by issuing driver's licenses, for example).
  • ADAS technology is challenging because it's a hybrid of the two, said Owens.
  • "You can’t divorce the operational safety from the technology itself," he said.

State and local governments should avoid replicating vehicle safety rules that the federal government already has, added Beuse.

  • If local governments are deciding how and when to regulate the safety of AVs, "that is something that would crush the benefits of this technology that are beyond our wildest dreams,” Beuse said.

The bottom line: It will take 20-30 years for vehicle autonomy to evolve, says Rosekind.

  • In the meantime, humans with various assisted driving technologies will be sharing the road with robot-driven vehicles.
  • "Anyone who is trying to crystal ball what's happening, we just don't know."

Go deeper

What we're driving: 2022 GMC Hummer EV

The 2022 GMC Hummer EV Edition 1. Photo: GM

At $112,595, the 2022 GMC Hummer EV Edition 1 pickup truck is the epitome of a "halo" vehicle for General Motors.

  • It's an over-the-top technology showcase for GM's electric vehicle ambitions, even if few people will actually own this limited edition supertruck.

Why it matters: The market for electric pickups is about to explode, and the Hummer EV, along with Rivian's R1T, are first out of the gate.

The big picture: Hummer, known for its gas-guzzling behemoth SUVs, is making a comeback as a zero-emissions sub-brand under the GMC label.

  • The Hummer truck is the first of more than 30 battery-electric models — including a Hummer SUV — that GM will introduce by 2025. All are based on the automaker's new Ultium battery architecture.
  • GM says it is "sold out" of the limited run for the pricey Edition 1; less expensive versions are still a long way off.
  • A $100,000 version comes in fall 2022, followed by a $90,000 model in spring 2023. The lowest-priced version, at $80,000, won't be available until spring 2024.
  • Production of the Edition 1 is just starting, but I got to drive a near-final prototype recently in and around Ann Arbor, Michigan — hardly the extreme off-road environment it was designed to tackle.

Still, the technology on this truck will blow you away.

  • It has an estimated 1,000 horsepower, a range of 350 miles per charge, and goes 0-60 mph in 3 seconds.
  • The Hummer EV can actually drive sideways, thanks to its four-wheel steering and a feature called CrabWalk.
  • The adjustable air suspension can lower the truck 3½ inches, or raise it as much as 6 inches.
  • Underbody cameras — with windshield wipers! — on each wheel let drivers see exactly what's happening under the truck.

One feature in the Hummer that's likely to permeate all of GM's vehicles is an enhanced version of Super Cruise, GM's hands-free assisted-driving system.

  • With the Hummer EV, Super Cruise is introducing automatic lane-changing capability.
  • It worked perfectly during my test drive, identifying an opening in traffic and then carefully navigating around slower-moving cars.
  • Tesla already has this feature in its cars, but safety advocates say GM's technology is better because it has a driver-monitoring system to ensure that drivers are paying attention.

The bottom line: The GMC Hummer EV is too extreme for most people's tastes, but its mission is to excite people about the potential of electric vehicles.

JPMorgan: "Full global recovery" in 2022

Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

JPMorgan Chase Global Research says in a forecast to clients: "2022 will be the year of a full global recovery, an end of the global pandemic, and a return to normal conditions we had prior to the COVID-19 outbreak."

The big picture: The bullish report sees "a return of global mobility, and a release of pent-up demand from consumers (e.g. travel, services)."

Inside Trump's hunt for "disloyal" Republicans

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Donald Trump and his associates are systematically reshaping the Republican Party, working to install hand-picked loyalists across federal and state governments and destroy those he feels have been disloyal, sources close to the former president tell Axios.

Why it matters: If most or all of Trump’s candidates win, he will go into the 2024 election cycle with far more people willing to do his bidding who run the elections in key states.