Ford, GM and Toyota collaborate for self-driving safety rules

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
Robert Hoffman, chief engineer, Autonomous Vehicle Functions, DURA, points out ultrasonic sensors around the Autonomous Vehicle Assistant at the American Center for Mobility testing center in Ypsilanti.​​​​​​​ A new consortium is being formed to establish safety principles for driverless cars.

Washington —  Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. will work together to establish safety and testing principles for driverless cars.

The newly formed Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium in conjunction with the auto engineering association SAE International says it will fill a critical need by providing a safety framework around which autonomous technology can responsibly evolve before self-driving vehicles are put into widespread use.

Being able to advance the safe deployment of fully self-driving cars represents a new step toward the benefits the technology will bring, said Edward Straub, director of automation for SAE and executive director of the new consortium.

"We were really formed basically around the opportunity to share the experience these companies have around safely testing and deploying these vehicles," Straub said in an interview with The Detroit News. 

Straub said the amount of self-driving car testing has "exploded" in recent years, leading the automakers who joined together to form the new consortium.

"You're seeing them pop up all over the place," he said, referring to testing of cars that would be capable of that performing most driving tasks without any assistance from human operators. "That increases the odds of confusion and expectations to be misplaced among the public about these vehicles. Coming together and developing a set of best practices and putting it out to the public, we think eventually will lead to an increase in the trust and public confidence." 

Straub said the automakers in the new consortium would turn information discovered through their self-driving testing over to SAE committees every three to six months, and the information would be discussed in public SAE sessions as a set of guidelines are being developed. 

Straub said other automakers and technology companies would be welcome to join the consortium, provided they have experience testing fully autonomous cars. 

The announcement comes as automakers gather in the nation's capital for the Washington Auto Show. It also occurs against a backdrop of congressional inaction on self-driving legislation that automakers have clamored for.

The announcement of the new partnership may be a reaction to the inability of Congress to pass legislation that would allow car manufacturers to sell thousands of self-driving vehicles in the near future, said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader.

"GM, Ford and Toyota clearly saw a need to set standards that eventually may become regulations because the proposed regulations, which had been moving quickly, have now stalled," she said. 

A bill championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township that would have allowed automakers to annually sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars died at the end of the last congressional session without becoming law.

The then-Republican-controlled U.S. House passed a bill that would allow carmakers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving cars each per year in 2017. The measure would have allowed automakers to request thousands of exemptions to federal motor vehicle safety standards that currently require cars to have a human operator.

Automakers have pushed lawmakers to try again this year to pass the self-driving legislation. 

Straub said the automakers in the new consortium are operating independently of the efforts to pass legislation in Congress. 

"I don't have much to say about what Congress may or may not do," he said. "We're really focused on getting these best practices out and sharing the experiences that these frankly very experienced companies have." 

Arthur Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, said it makes complete sense that major automakers are collaborating to establish a single set of rules for self-driving cars because "fights over standards and rules can create additional costs, delays and wasted human resources. 

"The concept is similar to having the same rules for everyone and the same basic requirements for meeting safety and quality. The auto industry hates uncertainty, it takes years and sometimes decades, to prepare a new vehicle or new technology to market. Having different standards and rules makes it incredibly expensive and risky."

It is in automakers' interest to work together to develop standards for self-driving cars in lieu of congressional action, says Valerie Sathe Brugeman, assistant director of transportation systems for the Center for Automotive Research.

She said automakers could draw inspiration the cybersecurity industry on how to collaborate without sharing too much proprietary information. Competitors in that industry frequently partner to develop industry-wide best practices. 

"They're maybe not sharing proprietary info with the whole group, but in side conversations, they're more willing to share," she said.

Brugeman said she hopes the automakers who formed the partnership on Wednesday follow through on their pledge to invite other manufacturers to contribute. "It would less than ideal to have one group working over here and another group working over here and they're not talking to each other," she said. "There's always a need to compete, but there's also increasingly a need to collaborate — both in terms of investment because they can't afford these big investments on their own, and to create standards the entire industry will benefit from."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing