Michigan, Fiat Chrysler join federal self-driving car initiative

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is one of nine companies participating in a U.S. Department of Transportation initiative designed to improve the safety and testing transparency of self-driving cars, and Michigan is one of eight states also joining the effort. 

But safety advocates sharply criticized the transportation department for sticking with an voluntary approach to self-driving regulation that critics have described as toothless, citing fatal accidents involving partially autonomous cars that have been operated in recent years by companies such as Tesla and Uber. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Monday announced a voluntary program that lets the auto industry share information about autonomous vehicles. Safety advocates said it is inadequate.

The agency announced Monday the formation of a new Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (AV TEST) Initiative that it said will include "a series of public events across the country to improve transparency and safety in the development and testing of automated driving systems." 

The voluntary initiative will provide an online platform for sharing details about testing with the public.

"This will help improve safety and transparency for the on-road testing of automated vehicles," U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a virtual launch event that took place Monday.

Fiat Chrysler is joined by Cruise, Navya, Nuro, Toyota, Uber, Waymo, Beep and Local Motors. Michigan is joined by California, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the company's autonomous vehicle strategy includes participation in industry-wide initiatives such as the the new federal initiative to address a rapidly changing market."  

The Michigan Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

"The Department of Transportation in concert with NHTSA has once again chosen to show where its true allegiance lies: corporate interests," said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for vehicle safety and fuel economy. 

Levine said the DOT announced Monday "that it will graciously accept whatever table scraps of information about AV testing some, but not all, auto and tech industry participants choose to throw to the federal government.

"Data will be collected in some states – but not others," he said. "Which data will be submitted, or not submitted, will ultimately be decided by Boards of Directors, not the federal government. And when a company’s car kills again, whether or not that company chooses to continue sharing information is more likely to be dictated by checking with corporate public relations teams than consulting the Code of Federal Regulations."

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, added: "Instead of the U.S. Department of Transportation continuing to issue voluntary, unenforceable agreements to the peril of all road users, it should fulfill its responsibility make our roads safe and develop minimum performance standards."

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 that show drivers are hesitant to embrace self-driving cars.

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 three times since 2017.   


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing