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Trump’s specter hangs over Obama self-driving rules

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Automakers and industry groups debated Monday the proper roles for the federal government and states in regulating self-driving cars under rules that have been proposed by the Obama administration. But it was the specter of President-elect Donald Trump that hung over the proceedings.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration convened its second public hearing on the proposed self-driving regulations. This hearing focused on “modern regulatory techniques” and creating a “model state policy.”

But several speakers that were supposed to speak during the meeting did not show up in a possible sign of the lame-duck status of the Obama administration’s proposed self-driving rules. So many speakers were missing that the session on creating state policy that was scheduled to last for most of Monday morning was recessed after about an hour.

Trump has said little about advanced automotive technology. He picked former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to be his transportation secretary, but there has been no word on who will lead NHTSA next year. At least one prominent auto industry lobbyist has predicted that Trump will “put a stamp” on self-driving rules when he takes office.

Against that backdrop of uncertainty, Association of Global Automakers Safety Manager Paul Scullion said NHTSA’s model state policy for self-driving cars include “language that could be read as encouraging states to regulate highly automated vehicle test programs.”

“We agree with the basic division of responsibility between NHTSA and the states, with NHTSA being responsible for vehicle safety issues and states responsible for driver licensing, registration, traffic law enforcement and insurance,” Scullion said. “We do not see it being in the best interest of the agency, manufacturers or the public for states or localities to regulate or prohibit testing of vehicle systems. This would create obstacles to deployment of ... safety technologies.”

Outgoing NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said his agency has tried to make clear that the federal government will maintain its oversight over auto manufacturers and states will have control over driver behavior and traffic laws.

“Our goal is build a consistent national framework for the development and deployment of automated vehicles so that users can take their vehicles across state lines, just as they can do today, and so that developers are building toward a single set of standards, rather than 50,” Rosekind said.

The NHTSA chief acknowledged that the “division of responsibility may be much less clear in a highly automated vehicle, where increasing the automated systems become the driver.”

The Transportation Department’s proposed self-driving rules focus on a set of 15 guidelines that call for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on their testing and safety of autonomous cars to federal regulators before the cars are sold to the public. 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 those systems fail.

The Obama administration’s proposed federal guidelines for self-driving are meant to steer the development of the technology as states like Michigan and California create their own rules for allowing autonomous cars to hit the road. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has signed a package of bills that will allow the public to buy and use fully self-driving cars when they are available. The new laws will also allow ride-sharing services without drivers to be operated by auto manufacturers or by ride-hailing services such as Lyft or Uber.

The laws are aimed at putting Michigan in the driver’s seat for autonomous technology, testing and deployment for self-driving cars. Proponents say the laws are important for the state’s economic development and talent retention.

Leigh Merino, senior director of regulatory affairs for the Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association, said her organization is concerned that states will pass laws containing the federal government’s suggestions about self-driving car testing that will hamper development of new technology.

“Even though voluntarily, the federal guidelines essentially become de facto requirements,” she said. “It’s critically important to get the foundational policy as clear as possible in these early stages to prevent uncertainty among the government and industry stakeholders, because misunderstandings may inadvertently delay technology evaluation and development.”

Tom Karol, General Counsel for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, added “states should consider how to allocate liability among highly automated vehicles owners, operates, passengers, manufacturers and others when a crash occurs,” while federal regulators focus on the safety of the scars themselves.

Rosekind said Monday that his agency is taking the feedback it is receiving on the proposed federal guidelines for self-driving cars seriously.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing