Carmakers face pressure to set self-driving car rules

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
On Tesla's latest, "Navigate on Autopilot" upgrade, the Tesla Model 3 will automatically change lanes on the way to its destination. That includes changing lanes when it is balked by a slower car. In this situation on the Lodge freeway, the car informed the driver of the lane change, waited for a faster car to come by, then made the pass.

Washington — "If you buy a car that does not have the hardware necessary for full self-driving, it is like buying a horse," Tesla CEO Elon Musk told investors recently.

Statements like that have previously been met with eye-rolls among major carmakers. But this time the eccentric Silicon Valley automaker chief's bold pronouncements, combined with congressional inaction, are ramping up pressure on legacy automakers who are partnering to establish guidelines for autonomous-car testing. 

The pronouncement from Musk, as he said his company will produce one million new cars equipped with hardware capable of “full self-driving" and also functioning as driverless taxis, comes as a trio of automakers are teaming together with engineering association SAE International to craft guidelines for self-driving cars. 

The partnership between Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.  is an effort by established companies to put in place guardrails for self-driving cars, even as Tesla and other tech companies move full-speed ahead in their promotion of self-driving cars in the near future as a fait accompli. Just this week, Google's self-driving affiliate Waymo LLC announced it had chosen a former American Axle plant in Detroit for one of the first factories devoted to installing fully autonomous vehicle hardware and software into cars.

Nathan Kokes, mobility communication manager for Toyota, said the manufacturers behind the newly formed Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium want to see self-driving cars on the road as much as Silicon Valley darlings like Musk. But he said they want to make sure the technology is developed safely. 

"A big driving force for this is just wanting to speed development along of Level 4 and 5 vehicles," he said, referring to SAE International's classification for cars that are fully capable of driving themselves with no human engagement.

"We see a lot of societal benefits and we can coordinate with the biggest manufacturers to help create some standards," Kokes continued. "We want to avoid smaller companies, because this going to be a cross-industry collaboration, who do not have access to a set of standards causing a crash and setting the whole development back." 

Crashes involving cars that were promoted as having at least some autonomous features have roiled debates about self-driving cars before. Three years ago, a 2015 Tesla Model S that was operating with its automated-driving system activated crashed into a semi-trailer rig that turned left in front of the Tesla at a highway intersection in Florida. Additionally, a pedestrian was struck and killed by a 2017 Volvo XC90 SUV that was being operated autonomously by Uber in Arizona. 

The crashes have done little to tamp down enthusiasm for self-driving cars among companies like Tesla, who see being on the cutting-edge as critical to their brand.

"The fundamental message that consumers should be taking today is that it's financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla," Musk said during the company's Autonomy Investor Day in Palo Alto, Calif. on Monday as he unveiled the company's new self-driving hardware. "It will be like owning a horse in three years. I mean, fine if you want to own a horse. But you should go into it with that expectation." 

Tesla will likely need action from Congress to mass market its future self-driving cars. Federal motor vehicle standards currently require cars to have human operators. Automakers are allowed to request 2,500 exemptions to those rules that last for just two years, which has cleared the way for testing. The number would have gone up to at least 80,000 exemptions under legislation that was unsuccessfully considered last year in Congress. 

Congress has been unable to pass legislation that would set standards for testing or deployment of self-driving cars, or that would have allow automakers to sell thousands of self-driving cars in the near future. Safety groups accuse lawmakers of being too cozy with carmakers and putting the cart before the horse by considering thousands of exemptions to manufacturers before clear rules for testing and operation are put in place.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has released three sets of voluntary guidelines that ask carmakers to outline publicly how they are developing and testing self-driving cars. The agency has stuck to the voluntary approach despite a torrent criticism from safety groups, arguing that the federal government does not have a mechanism to force automakers to submit safety assessments before they put self-driving cars on the road. 

The Trump administration has said that automakers should feel compelled to reassure the public about their products, considering that public opinion polls show drivers are hesitant to embrace autonomous cars. Thirteen automakers and tech companies, including Ford, GM, Uber, Apple and Waymo, have complied with the request, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Critics say the voluntary filings resemble slick marketing brochures instead of stringent regulatory filings. 

Backers of self-driving legislation that stalled last year in Congress say the move by Ford, GM and Toyota to create their own safety rules for self-driving cars does not absolve lawmakers of their responsibility to put federal rules in place. 

"Both have to happen," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who has promised to reintroduce legislation that unanimously passed her chamber in 2017 before dying in the U.S. Senate. "We want to make sure that we stay at the forefront of the economy and innovation.

"I have daily conversations on autonomous vehicles and how are we going to create a framework because consumer confidence has decreased, not increased," Dingell continued. "We have to have a framework. Congress has to act."

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said he is also planning to reintroduce self-driving legislation after working with Dingell and other House members on compromise language that could pass both chambers this time around. But Peters would not commit to a timeline.

"It’s our intention to move the bill at some point in the future," Peters said. "It’s clear that we have to — this technology is continuing to move forward, it’s moving forward very rapidly and we need to have a federal regulatory framework for it to be successful." 

It is nothing new for Tesla and other companies — including legacy car manufacturers — to make bold pronouncements about self-driving cars, said Valerie Sathe Brugeman, assistant director of transportation systems for the Center for Automotive Research.

"Companies have been claiming for quite awhile that they are going to have various levels of autonomy by 2019, 2020, even 2018 in some cases," she said. "Few of them have achieved those milestones.

"I think it's a lot of bluster, not just from Tesla, but companies in general," she continued. "But companies are starting to learn maybe we shouldn't be doing that. I don't think comments like this are going to drive how quickly standards are developed." 

Tesla's previous announcements about self-driving cars have mostly been hype, believes David Friedman, vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports.

“We’ve heard promises of self-driving vehicles being just around the corner from Tesla before," he said, adding, "Claims about the company’s driving automation systems and safety are not backed up by the data. 

"Instead of treating the public like guinea pigs," Friedman continued, "Tesla must clearly demonstrate a driving automation system that is substantially safer than what is available today based on rigorous evidence that is transparently shared with regulators and consumers, and validated by independent third-parties."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

Melissa Nann Burke of The Detroit News contributed.