Carmakers: Don’t overregulate self-driving car testing

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Automakers pushed members of Congress on Tuesday to give them space to develop self-driving cars as lawmakers consider federal regulations for the emerging technology.

Mike Abelson, vice president of global strategy at General Motors Co., told members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee that federal regulations for motor vehicles will have to be updated to clear the way for self-driving cars. He cautioned lawmakers about over-regulating the new technology.

“Current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards have served the motoring public well for years. However, as technology has evolved, standards – which take years to develop – have lagged behind,” Abelson said during a meeting of the panel’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee.

“Without changes to those regulations,” he said, “it may be years before the promise of today’s technology can be realized and thousands of deaths could have been prevented.”

Abelson told lawmakers that GM has begun testing self-driving electric Chevrolet Bolts on public roads in Scottsdale and San Francisco. Testing is set to begin in Detroit to examine the performance of self-driving cars in cold weather, he said.

The GM told lawmakers that automakers will have to be able to test self-driving cars in “real world” conditions to bring the technology to full fruition.

He said it is imperative that manufacturers have the ability to test these vehicles in greater numbers to gather safety data that will be critical to develop large-scale deployment.

Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, agreed. He said his company is pursuing two paths to autonomy: The first, called Guardian, is a crash-avoidance system that operates in the background and takes over in cases of danger. The second, called Chauffeur, is fully autonomous.

Pratt said policymakers must keep in mind that testing is a necessary means to an end.

Several lawmakers on the panel Tuesday touted the potential potential of self-driving to reduce crashes.

“In 2015, there were over 35,000 lives tragically lost on our nation’s highways,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, who is chairman of the subcommittee. “Based on early estimates, traffic fatalities in 2016 are even going to be higher. Unfortunately, we also know that human error accounts for over 90 percent of all the traffic accidents.”

Self-driving vehicles could significantly lower that number, the Ohio Republican said. He added that much more testing will be necessary before self-driving cars can be deployed for mass consumption, noting that even now, cars are “put through thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — of miles of testing to ensure that once a vehicle is on a dealer’s lot, it is safe for consumers and their families.”

Democrats on the panel warned against giving automakers too much freedom to regulate testing themselves, citing recent federal investigations of companies like Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata and Volkswagen AG.

“Self-driving cars have the potential to greatly reduce the number of accidents caused by human error. However, we need adequate testing and oversight to ensure that human error is not replaced with vehicle error,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said.

“The ‘just trust us’ approach simply doesn’t work for passenger vehicles, not after the industry’s failure that we’ve seen from Takata air bags to the VW emission scandal,” she continued.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, pointed to Michigan’s role in self-driving testing, noting that the American Center for Mobility being built on the 355-acre Willow Run site in Ypsilanti Township has been selected by the federal government as one of 10 designated “proving grounds” for autonomous vehicles.

“There has never been a more exciting time to be in the auto industry,” she said. “Automated vehicles are not just something you read about in a science fiction novel; in reality they are already here and helping transform mobility and the transportation of people and goods. Transportation is no longer the accurate word, mobility is.”

Dingell said the number of deaths that occur on U.S. roads “would be a public health epidemic if it was in any other industry.”

Dingell acknowledged after the meeting on Tuesday that “there are credibility issues with the autos right now because of some of the things that have happened.” But she said lawmakers will have to work with the auto industry anyway to ensure that self-driving cars are safely deployed.

“We’ve got to ensure consumers are safe,” she said in an interview with the Detroit News. “Our job as policymakers is a very delicate balance. But everybody wants a job, so we’ve got to stay at the forefront of this technology.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing