Feds move driverless safety assessments to honor system

Ian Thibodeau, and Keith Laing

Ann Arbor — President Donald Trump’s administration is doing away with an Obama-era policy that could have required automakers to submit safety assessments showing their self-driving cars meet 15 guidelines before placing them on public roads.

Instead, the Trump administration’s proposal says automakers “may” submit a voluntary safety self-assessment if they want to demonstrate their self-driving cars are safe. The proposal was unveiled Tuesday by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao during an appearance at the MCity test facility for autonomous vehicles in Ann Arbor.

“These are guidelines,” Chao said. “They are best practices, and I think that is the best way to proceed in a field that is changing so rapidly. This is not an enforcement document. This is a guidance document.”

The Trump administration’s self-driving guidance says the federal government does not have a mechanism to force automakers to submit safety assessments before they put self-driving cars on the road — a position already drawing sharp criticism from skeptics of self-driving vehicles.

“This isn’t a vision for safety,” John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director, said in a statement. “It’s a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”

The administration says the safety assessments “are encouraged prior to testing and deployment. NHTSA does not require that entities provide submissions nor are they required to delay testing or deployment. Assessments are not subject to federal approval.”

The new policy is a stark reversal from the Obama administration’s rules for self-driving cars. Released last year, they called for automakers and technology companies working to develop autonomous cars to voluntarily report on their testing and safety to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.

The Obama administration said it would initially request that automakers submit safety assessments to NHTSA, but the agency said it would consider making the requirement mandatory later through the federal rule-making process.

The Trump administration said of its new self-driving guidance: “NHTSA envisions that the Voluntary Safety Self-Assessments would contain concise information on how entities are utilizing the Voluntary Guidance and/or their own processes to address applicable safety elements identified in the Voluntary Guidance. The Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment should not serve as an exhaustive recount of every action the entity took to address a particular safety element.”

A bill passed by the House last week requires the Transportation secretary to issue rules ordering automakers to submit a safety assessment certification for their self-driving cars within two years of passage of the measure. In exchange, each automaker would be allowed to operate up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles per year on U.S. roads. A similar measure has been drafted in the U.S. Senate.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to transform mobility in this country — improving our economy and saving lives on the road,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in a statement. “This is a unique opportunity for members of both parties to come together to improve safety, support the auto industry’s comeback, and help create more cutting-edge jobs in our state. Today’s announcement brings us one step closer to making this new technology a reality.”

The Obama administration’s proposed rules would have been a sharp departure from NHTSA’s typical posture of largely waiting for automakers to self-report problems before recalls are issued. Before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads, automakers would have been required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if they fail.

Other areas in the 15-point assessment included: data recording and sharing; privacy; how drivers interact with cars; and consumer education and training.

Automakers complained when the Obama administration’s proposal was released, saying that reporting on their self-driving test could delve into proprietary information that would normally be shielded from their competitors. They praised the Trump administration for pumping the brakes on the proposed requirement.

“Ford Motor Company greatly appreciates the incorporation of stakeholder feedback into Version 2.0 of the voluntary Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” Ziad Ojakli, Ford’s group vice president of government and community relations, said in a statement. We are particularly grateful for the clear delineation between federal and state roles and responsibilities. As this process moves forward, we will continue being constructive partners in the pursuit of the safe deployment of autonomous technology.”

General Motors Co. added: “The revised policy provides clear, streamlined, and flexible guidance for the safe and responsible design, manufacture, and deployment of self-driving vehicles.”

Safety advocates complain that federal regulators are providing too much latitude to automakers as they move into the new territory of self-driving cars, a sentiment echoed by consumers wary of cars that purportedly drive themselves.

Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson noted that the Trump administration’s self-driving policy addresses vehicles that meet the feds’ definition for conditional or higher automation. That means they at least have an autonomous system that operates with the expectation that a human driver will take over upon being prompted.

The new proposed rules would apply to vehicles classified as level three or higher on the federal government’s six-point scale for automation in cars. The federal scale runs from level zero, with no automation, to level five, with full autonomy.

The rules would not apply to so-called semi-autonomous systems like Tesla’s autopilot, he said, which are classified by the federal government as driver-assistance systems that assume the human operator still will perform most of the “dynamic” driving tasks.

“This a serious short-coming and ignores the fact that Level 2 technology, like Tesla’s Autopilot, has killed people,” Simpson said. “How the human driver monitors and interacts with Level 2 technologies is potentially life threatening and requires Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”