Feds defend voluntary robot car regulations

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The Trump administration defended its voluntary approach to autonomous vehicle regulation on Tuesday, despite growing calls from safety advocates for a federal mandate to compel automakers to publicly release information about their self-driving car testing. 

Speaking at a technology conference in Washington, Deputy National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Heidi King said her agency's "research portfolio has supported the development of our current voluntary guidance approach during this time of rapid change, to prioritize safety while also enabling innovation. 

"This approach will help us continue to protect all road users inside and outside of vehicles, and to consider the safety of a mixed fleet during a period of transition, not only testing, but also deployment," King said. "Since the adoption and integration of many of these advanced automotive technologies will not actually occur for many years to come, this together is the start of a journey to develop products that consumers want, that consumer use, that consumers don't disable, that they rely on and that trust."  

The Trump administration has released self-driving guidelines that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on their handling of 12 safety elements that federal regulators say should be involved in all self-driving car testing. The recommendations were originally crafted by the Obama administration, and they have been updated by the Trump administration twice. 

The voluntary reporting system has come under fire from safety advocates, who say reports that have been submitted so far — by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., the Google-affiliated Waymo, Nuro, a robotics company based in Mountain View, Calif. and Nvidia, a graphics processing unit maker that is developing artificial intelligence for self-driving cars  — resemble slick marketing brochures instead of stringent regulatory filings. 

Critics say the self-driving assessments should be mandatory to ensure compliance from all automakers. They also say the paperwork already voluntarily submitted does little to reassure the driving public that vigorous testing is being done, an answer to polls showing increasing unease about self-driving cars. 

"Since the passage of the FAST (Fixing America's Surface Transportation) Act in 2015, drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists have served as human guinea pigs across the United States without even the minimal requirement that those testing autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technology make public information demonstrating the safety of their technology," the Center for Auto Safety, which is a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy nonprofit, said in a petition to NHTSA that called for the agency to begin working to mandate the self-driving safety assessments. 

"This failure has taken place despite NHTSA’s explicit recognition in 'Federal Automated Vehicles Policy: Accelerating the Next Revolution in Roadway Safety' that the agency has the authority to mandate the submission of reports regarding how manufacturers intend their product to be made ready for use on public roads." 

The Trump administration has argued the federal government does not have a mechanism to force automakers to submit safety assessments before they put self-driving cars on the road. They argue that automakers should feel compelled by public opinion polls showing drivers are hesitant to embrace self-driving cars to reassure the public about their products. 

"It’s important to recognize that building trust in the performance of a handheld electronic device is very different than building trust in a 4,000-pound vehicle sharing a busy road with pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and other vehicles," King said Tuesday. 

King added the Trump administration's latest self-driving guidance "builds upon our existing rigorous safety system.

"As most of you know...there is an existing framework to protect the public during this time of testing and deployment," she said. "In fact, all vehicles and all vehicle equipment manufacturers continue to be subject to DOT’s safety regulatory oversight. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards apply to any motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. And of course any motor vehicle or vehicle equipment continues to be subject to recall if a safety defect exists that poses an unreasonable safety risk." 

Brad Stertz, director of Government Affairs for Audi, agreed it is important for automakers to be transparent with the public as they are testing self-driving cars to boost consumer confidence in the technology. 

"The more we can try to get more people exposed to understand the technology, the more it’s accepted and understood, and then the trust word, I think that's very important to let people experience it because the imagination continues to be all over the place," he said.  

Audi has not yet released a safety assessment report for its self-driving cars. 


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing