U.S. urges Google to focus on safety in driverless test

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants search engine Google Inc. to ensure that its autonomous cars that it plans to test later this year are safe.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said he’s told Google to think about safety when it tests and builds its self-driving cars.

“Take the same really great creative thinking that you put in your technology and put it into safety. What can you do with all that brain power that you are putting on the car driving side and put into safety? Show me something new and different in innovation there. That’s the part I’m waiting from them,” Rosekind told The Detroit News on the sidelines of an SAE meeting in Washington. “You have to have innovation and safety together.”

Last week, the head of Google’s self-driving car program told reporters that the company doesn’t need NHTSA’s approval to begin road tests of fully autonomous vehicles in states like California.

Unike some countries, the United States doesn’t require automakers to get pre-certification before selling new cars, but automakers must certify the vehicles meet all safety standards. “People can put certain things on the road, but for any reason if we think there’s going to be a safety issue, we can go look at that,” Rosekind said.

Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, said the company plans to test a fleet of prototype fully autonomous vehicles without a steering wheel later this year, but that the company has no plans to compete with automakers.

“They are not a permission-granting organization,” Urmson said. “NHTSA could certainly reactively ban it, but we don’t think that they need to grant permission.”

The company has logged more than 700,000 miles of self-driving in retrofitted Lexus vehicles, but humans handle the driving in certain weather and at critical points, like getting onto highways.

“We’re definitely not in the business of making cars — just to be 100 percent clear,” Urmson said last week at the Automotive News World Congress. “We’re very excited to push the technology forward.”

He said the effort wasn’t aimed at getting vehicle occupants to look at more ads instead of driving.

Urmson said he believes it is legal in some states for Google to test autonomous cars that don’t have a steering wheel or brakes on U.S. roads. “We don’t actually think there is a regulatory block.

NHTSA said the Google vehicles must meet U.S. requirements — though if the Google test cars are legally “low-speed” vehicles they would face less restrictive U.S. requirements. Urmson said the test fleet will travel “at lower speeds to reduce the risk when something should go wrong.”

In 1998, NHTSA approved rules allowing for golf carts and other low speed vehicles to travel on U.S. roads at up to 25 mph. The vehicles must have some safety equipment — headlamps, stop lamps, turn signal lamps, taillamps, reflex reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, seat belts, and vehicle identification numbers — but they don’t have to have airbags and meet some other requirements.

The rules were designed for vehicles to be used on “short trips for shopping, social, and recreational purposes primarily within retirement or other planned communities with golf courses.” They must be able to go at least 20 mph but no faster than 25 mph.

NHTSA is laying the groundwork for nationwide regulations if autonomous vehicles become commercially available. A number of states have sought input from the agency, which doesn’t want states setting their own safety requirements.