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Driverless vehicle rules split automakers

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden

As federal officials work to finalize guidelines for autonomous vehicles, automakers and other interested parties are at odds over several hot-button issues including the testing, regulation and even whether to license operators of autonomous cars.

More than 60 public comments and documents submitted on self-driving vehicles to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the past several months show automakers, tech companies and the public have varying concerns and opinions.

The commentary, which included two public sessions in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco in April, show the levels of complexity involving self-driving vehicles — from legal and regulatory to questions such as whether vehicles that can drive themselves should require an operator with a driver’s license, or even if the vehicles need steering wheels and brake pedals.

General Motors Co. Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said Tuesday that GM believes the steering wheel, brake and accelerator should remain in autonomous vehicles while self-driving technology and safety is proven.

“We believe through an evolution we’re able to put the technology into the vehicles,” Barra told reporters ahead of GM’s annual shareholders meeting in Detroit. “And it is very important that we demonstrate safety. We think that having that capability when the steering wheel and the pedals are still in the vehicle is a very good way to demonstrate and prove the safety.”

Google, a competitor to GM in self-driving car technology, wants to have cars without a steering wheel and pedals available to consumers.

Google and GM were among 13 automakers, suppliers and tech companies; 17 auto- or tech-related associations; and dozens of American citizens to give opinions on self-driving vehicles to NHTSA.

Other major automakers to submit written opinions included Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Volvo Group, Daimler Trucks and Tesla Motors Inc.

Most, if not all comments, cited safety as a top priority and commended NHTSA for its efforts. Many also raised issues over cybersecurity and how much data to share.

Opinions to the federal vehicle safety watchdog are expected to be major discussions among thousands of attendees at the annual TU-Automotive tech-auto conference Wednesday and Thursday in Novi.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind is among the 150 or so speakers and panelists scheduled to make addresses during the conference. Rosekind is on a panel with officials from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and Michigan Secretary of State’s Office to discuss guidelines and regulations.

Standardizing regulations that don’t slow development of self-driving technologies was one major issue companies mentioned during the public comment period, which concluded at the end of May.

Many states are opting to set their own regulations for self-driving car testing. Late last year, California issued draft regulations that would require self-driving cars to have a steering wheel and a licensed driver to take over if the vehicle technology failed.

Nevada has been a leader in allowing autonomous vehicles to test on its roadways, while broad legislation recently was introduced in the Michigan Senate that would allow manufacturers to produce and sell self-driving cars here and clear the way for their use on state roadways.

Google Self Driving Car Chief Technology Officer Chris Urmson “strongly” urged NHTSA in a May 7 memo to make sure states follow the federal operational guidelines, citing 15 states that have proposed “such laws over the last 12 months; all of which have different scope and different definitions.”

Tesla Motors Inc. Director of Field Performance Engineering Matthew L. Schwall told NHTSA “a clear and consistent regulatory path through the developmental and deployment stages of AV (automated vehicle) technology is important to the successful widespread adoption of AVs.”

There was no consensus in the opinions to NHTSA on who should regulate the vehicles, how they should be regulated and whom owns the massive amounts of data that autonomous, or even semi-autonomous, vehicles will produce.

Honda says autonomous technology will open mobility options to people with the disabilities, but needs to be done carefully. The Japanese automaker doesn’t support unlicensed drivers, at least initially. “Automated vehicles should only be operated by licensed drivers until the technology and the operational jurisdiction allow for expanded use,” John Turley, senior manager of Honda’s product regulatory office, wrote in Honda’s written testimony.

Ford voiced support and openness to working with NHTSA and others to accelerate the development and implementation of self-driving but felt automakers are the “best suited to self-validate” the technologies.

GM discouraged third-party testing, saying it may be a challenge for autonomous vehicles to be compatible with such tests. The automaker said some data, including providing a location of a vehicle during a crash, the severity of the crash and the operating status of a vehicle, should be shared while balancing privacy.

On the other hand, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine, supported third-party testing.

“Consumers deserve that added level of assurance, above and beyond the self-certification that occurs for compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards,” read a May 9 letter from the organization’s policy analyst and Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations for the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

Michael A. Dahl, FCA US head of Vehicle Safety and Regulatory Compliance, did not give many direct opinions on regulations in a two-page letter but said the company “looks forward to working with NHTSA as it develops the operational guidance for self-driving vehicles.”

Mercedes-Benz USA said data recording should be kept to a minimum in self-driving cars and it is open to talking about how to share some anonymous data in summary form to improve safety of the technology. “We cannot, however, agree to systematic disclosure of sensitive data associated with the performance of our ADS features,” the company said in its statement.

Most opinions to NHTSA from the public raised concerns about cyber security and questioned the viability of self-driving vehicles. Some, including a comment from “an older disabled woman” named Kari Sievers, supported autonomous vehicles because of their benefits for those who don’t have a driver’s license.

“Having a driverless car provides for ‘access’ and ‘availability’ for independence many disabled people such as myself are denied,” she wrote. “A driverless vehicle would provide for me to do more things for myself, by myself.”

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