Feds want pre-approval of safety of self-driving cars

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington – – Federal regulators want to require automakers to meet a set of 15 guidelines before they can place self-driving cars on public roads.

The proposed rules, released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation, call for automakers and technology companies who are working to develop autonomous cars to voluntary report on their testing and safety to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.

The rules are meant to steer the development of the technology as states like Michigan and California create their own rules for allowing self-driving cars to hit the road.

Consumer groups have raised questions about the safety of self-driving autos since a fatal accident this summer involving a Tesla car being operated in “Autopilot” mode. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the agency is pushing ahead with the autonomous vehicle framework because the safety benefits outweigh the risks.

“Today we put forward the first federal policy on automated vehicles. The most comprehensive national automated vehicle policy that the world has ever seen. It is a first of its kind, taking us from the horseless carriage to the driverless car,” Foxx told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

The proposed regulations call for states to allow federal regulators to create rules for self-driving autos, while state and local governments continue to regulate the drivers that are behind the wheel.

The rules would be a sharp departure from NHTSA’s typical posture of largely waiting for automakers to self-report problems before recalls are issued. Before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads, automakers would be required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if they fail.

Other areas in the 15-point assessment include: data recording and sharing; privacy; how drivers interact with cars; and consumer education and training.

Automakers have said they are willing to voluntarily comply with the proposed federal guidance for now.

“We think guidance is the right action to take since the technology is developing quickly and collaboration between automakers and NHTSA is critical to avoid policies that become outdated and inadvertently limit progress in reducing the number of crashes and saving lives,” said Wade Newton, director of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The group represents 12 automakers including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

Newton said automakers will continue working with federal and state lawmakers to develop favorable rules.

NHTSA said the reporting process “may be refined and made mandatory through a future rule-making,” but for now compliance would be voluntary. Congressional approval would be required to make many of the regulatory changes that are being proposed by NHTSA legally binding.

Michigan and other states have moved to develop rules to allow self-driving auto testing in a bid to attract development by companies like Ford, Google and Uber that already are working on prototypes.

However, the Department of Transportation said Tuesday that it strongly encourages states to allow the federal government alone to regulate the performance of autonomous technology and vehicles. It said if states do pursue regulation, they should base those efforts on the guidelines announced Tuesday.

The Michigan House of Representatives is now considering the legislation that would allow the public to buy and use fully driverless cars whenever they are available. It would allow companies to run fleets of driverless ride-hailing services. A vote could be taken as soon as Wednesday.

Under current law, autonomous vehicles can only be driven in Michigan for test purposes, and a driver must be at the ready. California has taken the opposite tack with a proposal that would require a licensed driver — and a steering wheel — to be in the car at all times.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said Tuesday that the differing proposals show the need for a set of national guideline for self-driving autos.

Safety advocates warned regulators about the potential perils of rushing into self-driving autos.

“The advent of driverless cars holds great promise to advance safety,” said Jacqueline Gillan, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “However, federal oversight, minimum performance requirements, rigorous testing as well as transparent and verified data are essential in the development process. Consumers cannot be ‘human guinea pigs’ in this experiment and the federal government cannot be a passive spectator.”

Michigan lawmakers in Congress cheered the proposed guidelines.

“Today’s announcement from NHTSA marks a major milestone in the effort to bring automated vehicles to America’s roads and ensure our country remains at the cutting edge of automotive technology, and I look forward to carefully reviewing this guidance,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said in a statement.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said the policy should help establish a baseline for a national framework. “Automated vehicles,” she said, “are creating a paradigm shift in the auto industry due to their potential to save lives and reduce congestion.”