GM faces blowback on federal driverless car petition

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
GM Cruise's driverless taxi service car was shown at Cobo Center in April 2018.   At the time, the fleet was projected to launch in 2019.

Washington — General Motors Co. is running into opposition to its petition to federal regulators for permission to put up to 5,000 driverless cars — without steering wheels or control pedals — on public roads. 

In comments submitted to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, groups that represent car dealers, insurers and road safety advocates took issue with the Detroit carmaker's request to put 2,500 "driverless zero‐emission autonomous" vehicles on the road annually for a two-year period beginning this year.

The petition, submitted by GM in January 2018 but not made public for comment until March of this year, is seen as the company's first step in deploying a driverless-taxi fleet of Chevrolet Bolt EV-based cars, known as the Cruise AV. GM's petition is for the current maximum number of exemptions allowed to federal motor vehicle safety standards that require cars to have human operators. 

Thomas Karol, general counsel for federal issues for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, which lobbies for property and casualty insurance providers, said NHTSA "must assess whether an ADS [automated driving system] steers, brakes and accelerates at least as effectively and safely as a human driver" before it grants permission to companies like GM to put self-driving cars on U.S. roads. 

"If NHTSA is not sure that an ADS is at least as safe as existing human-operated vehicles, NHTSA has no business enabling ADS to operate on the roads, and surely has no business removing federally mandated vehicle safety standards to a vehicle that they do not know if its as safe as existing vehicles," Karol said in comments submitted May 17. 

Douglas Greenhaus, chief regulatory counsel of Environment, Health and Safety for the National Automobile Dealers Association, which represents franchised automobile and truck dealers, also urged NHTSA to proceed with caution on the petition.

Noting that GM is the first company to petition for fully autonomous self-driving cars, Greenhaus said in comments submitted on May 20 that NHTSA should evaluate it in terms of its potential impact on the public’s perception and confidence in such vehicles. 

"At the very least," he said, "the public needs to know that ZEAV [zero emission autonomous vehicles] will compare favorably to similarly equipped ... human-controlled GM vehicles, and that a ZEAV ADS will operate at a safety level equal to or greater than an average human driver."

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy nonprofit, said GM's petition failed to demonstrate its fully self-driving cars match the safety levels required for human-operated vehicles. 

"Despite a petition of 97 pages, and 78 footnotes, GM has provided no data that establishes...the absolute value of safety" of its vehicles, Levine said.

Jill Ingrassia, managing director of government relations and traffic safety advocacy for AAA, urged NHTSA to carefully consider the merits of GM's proposal, noting that polls consistently show the driving public is skeptical about self-driving cars. 

"While there is much enthusiasm in the auto and technology industries to accelerate rapid development and deployment of automated vehicles, three-in-four Americans remain afraid of fully self-driving vehicles," she said in comments submitted on May 20, referencing findings from AAA’s 2019 annual automated vehicles survey. 

"Missteps in the industry – as we have already seen from a number of high-profile incidents involving automated vehicles – could hamper future widespread consumer adoption," Ingrassia continued. "As a result, the potential benefits of these technologies may be delayed." 

A GM spokesperson said it would review the comments.

"Safety is the cornerstone of our approach to the design, development and testing of our Zero Emission Autonomous Vehicles," the company said in a statement. "We believe that automated technology has tremendous potential to reduce the human operator error that is a leading cause of more than 90% of vehicle crashes.

The company said the vehicle represents important advances in safety, zero emission vehicles and mobility, and meets the safety objectives of federal standards.

GM received support for its petition from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which said fully driverless cars hold the promise of eliminating drunk and impaired driving. 

"Nationwide, more than 37,000 people died in 2017 due to car crashes," J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer for MADD, said in comments May 15. "More than 90 percent of these traffic crashes are caused by human error or behavior. Self-driving vehicles will save lives by eliminating errors such as distracted, drunk or drowsy driving." 

The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for GM and other major carmakers in Washington, concurred.

"Unlike conventional human drivers," said the alliance's Scott Schmidt, "the (automated driving system) can’t get distracted, drive impaired or fall asleep at the wheel."

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing