Few carmakers submit self-driving car safety reports
Washington — The Trump administration has asked automakers to voluntarily outline how they are developing and testing self-driving cars on public roads. But only three companies have complied.
Safety advocates say reports that have been submitted so far — by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and the Google-affiliated Waymo, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — resemble slick marketing brochures instead of stringent regulatory filings.
Critics say the self-driving assessments should be mandatory to ensure compliance from all automakers. They also say the paperwork already voluntarily submitted does little to reassure the driving public that vigorous testing is being done, an answer to polls showing increasing unease about self-driving cars.
The Trump administration 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. They argue that automakers should feel compelled by public opinion polls showing drivers are hesitant to embrace self-driving cars to reassure the public about their products — and the results so far have been mixed.
“As awareness around the development of autonomous technology increases, we’re seeing some dramatic shifts in consumer sentiment,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive’s Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, in a statement accompanying a recent report on the evolution of autonomy.
“People now have a deeper understanding of the complexities involved when creating a self-driving car, and that has them reconsidering their comfort level when it comes to handing over control.”
Automakers are keenly aware of the challenges. In its 33-page safety assessment filing, GM reported each of its current test self-driving vehicles has "human driver controls" and two humans in the driver and passenger seats.
"We will operate our self-driving vehicles with (autonomous vehicle testers) until they are capable of safe, fully driverless operation," the No. 1 Detroit automaker said. "We continue to maintain a rigorous focus on safety in the design and development of our self-driving technology and all our operations, including AVT training and operating procedures."
In a 44-page filing, Ford also reported utilizing human "safety operators" in its self-driving test vehicles for now: "We currently have two-person teams — a safety driver and a 'co-pilot' — in all our test vehicles. Also, before we put anyone in the driver or passenger seat of our test vehicles, they go through rigorous training and certification."
Waymo said in a 43-page filing it "conducts extensive testing on public roads, a closed course, and in simulated driving." The California-based company notes that its self-driving cars are designated to operate fully autonomously. The company has tested fully robotic cars in Arizona and it has requested permission to do so in California.
"Our fully self-driving system is designed to operate without a human driver, unlike technologies sold in cars today such as adaptive cruise-control or lane-keeping systems which require constant monitoring by the driver," Waymo said. "Our system includes the software and hardware that, when integrated into the vehicle, perform all driving functions."
When asked whether it plans to submit a self-driving assessment, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S. said in a statement: "Safety is paramount at FCA US. We will communicate with NHTSA accordingly."
Volkswagen AG said in a statement provided to The Detroit News it is "currently focusing its worldwide development and testing of AV technology in Germany." The German automaker said it will "submit a voluntary safety self-assessment letter to NHTSA when the time is appropriate in conjunction with U.S. testing and deployment."
Hyundai Motor America said of its safety assessment plans: "We will not be releasing anything at this point but are continuing to monitor as we go forward." American Honda Motor Co. said it has "no plan to submit a self-assessment in the near future." And Toyota Motor Corp. said it "has sought to be transparent with NHTSA as we pursue further development of automated vehicle technologies and will continue to explore filing a voluntary safety self-assessment with NHTSA."
The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed self-driving guidelines that call 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, but the Trump administration released an update in 2017 and has said it is planning to release a third version later this year.
Congress is also working to pass a law that would place new regulations on self-driving cars. The Senate is considering a bill championed by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, that would allow automakers to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars each per year. A similar measure that would allow carmakers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving cars each per year has already passed in the U.S. House.
Under the Senate's proposed measure, automakers would be required to submit a safety evaluation of their self-driving cars within 90 days of the proposed measure’s enactment. The House bill directs the transportation department to develop a mandate that requires carmakers to submit safety assessments within two years of its passage into law. The House measure says the voluntary safety assessments that NHTSA is soliciting from carmakers will be acceptable until then.
There has been contention about whether the federal government has the power to compel automakers to publicly release information about their self-driving testing. The safety assessments were voluntary in the initial self-driving guidelines that were released in 2016, but former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the idea of making them mandatory was under consideration before Trump's election.
The Trump administration has since argued that it does not have the power to issue such a mandate, but it has encouraged automakers to voluntarily turn over the information.
"Keeping an open mind to technology that is still developing is why NHTSA has adopted a voluntary approach to safety disclosures," Deputy NHTSA Administrator Heidi King said in a speech given at the Autonomous Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco last month. "We believe that a voluntary approach is appropriate at this point in the development of the emerging technology because a need to regulate hasn’t been demonstrated."
Safety advocates have sharply disagreed. They say the Trump administration's proposed guidelines for self-driving cars are toothless without a mandate that requires automakers to release information about their testing of self-driving cars for public consumption.
"There aren’t real standards about what they are supposed to put in the assessment," said John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group. "The result of that is the three we have seen are much more like slick marketing brochures than anything that shows what kinds of tests have been passed or what these things can do."
Simpson noted there are currently 55 companies that are permitted to test self-driving cars in California, including Ford, GM Cruise, Volkswagen Group of America, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Nissan, Honda and Tesla Motors.
"If the voluntary la-di-da program was working, you’d have 55 safety assessments that are filed with NHTSA," Simpson said.
NHTSA said in a statement provided to The News that it "is working with companies to support their disclosure of voluntary safety self-assessments and applauds those that have already proactively taken this step."
Polls show drivers have been slow to accept the premise of self-driving cars. A recent survey conducted by ORC International showed 69 percent of U.S. residents are concerned about sharing the road with driverless vehicles.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has warned that public acceptance of self-driving cars will continue to lag if auto companies are not transparent about their robot car testing.
"Without public acceptance, automated technology will never reach its full potential," Chao said in a speech at the AV Symposium in San Francisco. "So, we need to work together to get it right."