Chao ponders fed role in regulating driverless tech

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Detroit — A seemingly endless array of questions surrounding how driverless vehicles will one day be brought to the public have industry leaders looking for a unique balance between the freedom to develop and some measure of regulation for public safety.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, addressed the subject Monday in Detroit, where she met with automakers on the subject.

“The pressure is mounting for the federal government to do something,” Chao said without specifying how the Trump administration envisions handling the nascent technology.

In a competitive field where auto and tech companies are vying against one another, the U.S. Department of Transportation has largely employed a hands-off approach. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a set of voluntary guidelines in September for companies engaged in the development and testing of autonomous vehicles.

After taking comments from stakeholders, Chao said an updated version of the guidelines will be released before the end of the year. The guidelines will remain voluntary.

This week, NHTSA is hosting the 25th International Technical Conference on The Enhanced Safety of Vehicles at the Cobo Center. And the first day’s programs featured plenty of discussion about the current and potential role of federal regulation.

“The Federal Automated Vehicles Policy is a bold policy first step ... but it can’t be the last step,” said Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering at Ford Motor Co. “We must have concrete federal guidelines and additional data to inform how we will bring this technology to market in a way that will cause more good than harm.”

In an effort to foster development and creativity in the autonomous vehicle field, federal officials have refrained from putting mandatory policies in place. And it’s a strategy that appears to have worked.

California has 30 approved companies testing vehicles on the roadway — up from four in 2014, Waymo’s director of safety Ron Medford noted during a panel session. That “phenomenal” pace, however, is one of the reasons strict regulation may not be the best move for the fledgling industry, he said.

“Not one vehicle has been deployed yet in the public domain without a test driver in it,” Medford said. “So it’s a little early to kind of figure out what is the final product that’s going to be mature and operational. For states and even for NHTSA, at this stage, to regulate without understanding what the final product is going to be ... is a bit of an issue.

“The tendency has always been to regulate today what you see today, which won’t represent what we see in four or five years with autonomous vehicles. So it’s important to remain flexible.”

By contrast, public safety problems can arise — such as with driver alert systems — if there are not any consistent standards, some experts said.

A vibrating chair can be used in some systems to startle a drowsing driver. In another system, that same vibration may indicate a car in the driver’s blind spot. Without consistency, unfamiliarity with differing systems could lead to accidents, several panel experts said.

A test driver for Tesla Motors died just over a year ago in an accident, and Chao discussed the impact of that event on her thinking during a brief meeting with reporters Monday.

“The future of autonomous vehicles is very bright ... but we have a responsibility to ensure that the new technology is safe and secure,” she said.

Chao and others also addressed the looming problem of inconsistent state and worldwide regulations or standards. Kay Stepper, vice president and head of driver assistance and automated driving at North America Robert Bosch LLC, said having different standards for features country to country and state to state poses all kinds of problems for manufacturers.

“There really is no good argument ... why the regulation should be different...,” Stepper said. “That becomes, at the end of the day, very costly for the industry to implement, and it prohibits or at least hinders the fast introduction of potentially life-saving technologies.”

Chao said a “patchwork of regulations” are forming in the states — another factor that is pressuring the Department of Transportation to act. But she also used her Detroit appearance to apply pressure of her own.

Targeting Silicon Valley, Chao said companies behind the latest autonomous technologies need to do a better job of educating the public.

“I think the pace of (new) technology is coming so rapidly that the consumers can’t take it all in...,” she said. “If most people don’t understand the new technologies, they are not going to buy in to these new vehicles that are being developed. ...

“I want Silicon Valley to help explain the technologies they are developing and promoting so that people can understand how these new technologies will actually improve safety and decrease fatalities.”

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