Highway chief: Next president will back self-driving

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington – — The nation’s top highway regulator predicted Friday that President Barack Obama’s replacement in the White House — whomever that may be — will continue the current push for advancement of self-driving cars.

Federal Highway Administration chief Greg Nadeau said during a speech in Washington on Friday he is confident that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump will not put the brakes on the Obama administration’s rollout for rules governing and advancing self-driving car technology.

“It’s going to be an ongoing, evolutionary thing,” Nadeau said at a vehicle technology forum held in conjunction with the Consumer Technology Association. “I am absolutely confident that whoever wins the election, the next administration and Congress will continue to encourage this kind of activity because frankly, our future transportation system depends on it.”

The comments follow the Obama administration’s decision to unveil rules that include 15 guidelines for automakers to meet before they can place self-driving cars on public roads. The rules, which were unveiled last week, will likely not be finalized before the next president takes office.

The major party presidential nominees have said relatively little about auto issues other than foreign trade agreements.

Nadeau said improving the nation’s transportation system will have to be a top priority for the next president.

“This country will be home to 70 million more people,” he said. “That equals adding the states of New York, Florida and Texas combined to our population. And they not all going to be teleworking.

“The goal of many of these technologies is to prevent crashes before they happen.”

The Obama administration’s proposed rules for self-driving cars require automakers to report how autonomous driving systems were tested, how they work and what happens if they fail before they are allowed on roads.

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

Nadeau said Friday that the reporting system will “guide manufacturers, developers and other organizations in the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.”

Consumer Technology Association president Gary Shapiro said the auto and technology sector are becoming more intertwined as companies push to develop cars that can drive themselves. “The auto and technology sectors didn’t have a lot to do with each other as recently as 10 years ago,” he said.

Shapiro added that auto companies have “found that people are buying their cars because of the technology in them, more than the past, when they brought on how fast you could go from zero to 60.”

The Consumer Technology Association chief praised federal regulators for moving to create a national framework for self-driving auto testing, noting that states like California have proposals that would require a licensed driver — and a steering wheel — to be in the car at all times.

“Fortunately for us, the federal government has basically said that’s not a requirement,” Shapiro said. “They’ve kind of preempted California.”

Michigan, by contrast, 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.

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.

Shapiro dismissed fears about self-driving cars being hacked or unable to handle situations that are currently dealt with by human drivers, citing potential benefits like reducing the possibility of drunk driving accidents.

“Once these things start working, it’s very difficult to require someone to pay attention to be able to take over if they have to,” he said. “I think there’s great reason not to have someone take over because it’s not like one of these cars is going to go rogue.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing