Robot cars drive forward without clear direction from Washington

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Motorists may have to rely on automakers to keep them safe in self-driving cars in the absence of clear direction from Washington. 

Congress can’t seem to agree on updating the laws to allow widespread deployment of autonomous fleets. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has resisted calls for mandatory regulations that force automakers to disclose testing data.

Legislation died in December that would have directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to update federal safety standards to ensure that autonomous vehicles match safety levels required for human-operated cars. It would have allowed each automaker to annually sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars without steering wheels or brake pedals; current law only allows carmakers to test 2,500.

Congress can’t seem to agree on updating the laws to allow widespread deployment of driverless fleets.

However, the measure would not have mandated that automakers share data about robotic-car testing to help prevent future crashes. And the Trump administration has argued that NHTSA regulators don't have the power to compel automakers to do so. 

Lawmakers on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee and the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee announced in a recent statement they are "shifting into high gear on self-driving car legislation." But Congress has recessed for a month, meaning the earliest any potential legislation could be approved is September. 

GM Cruise LLC, the autonomous-vehicle unit of General Motors Co., confirmed last month it will delay indefinitely its plan to deploy a fleet of driverless taxis in San Francisco this year.

It was an explicit acknowledgement that the hype generated by some companies and investors is outpacing both engineering reality and safety concerns. Other carmakers like Ford Motor Co. and Tesla Inc. — as well as ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, and tech companies like Waymo and Apple — have also made bold pronouncements about self-driving cars that now appear overly optimistic. 

Tesla continues to promise fully self-driving cars by the end of this year. 

Elon Musk

"We expect to be able to offer full self-driving actually everywhere, except EU because there's just some committee rules that were put in place years ago that need to be changed," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during a July 24 call with investors about the company's second-quarter fiscal performance. 

Tesla has been hit with complaints to the Federal Trade Commission from consumer advocacy groups about advertising cars equipped with its "Autopilot" driver-assistance system as fully self-driving cars.

And last week, the legal transparency group Plainsite released documents showing NHTSA  has subpoenaed Tesla for information about crashes at least five times since April 2018 .

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Navigant Research, a market research firm, said most automakers have been much more cautious in their pronouncements.

"Other manufacturers haven't been as firm," he said. "Ford said they were targeting 2021, GM said they were targeting 2019. Largely everybody else has been using a little bit softer language. They're not saying hard and fast 'We're going to be here.' They're saying 'This is our target.'" 

Abuelsamid said the biggest problem with deployment of self-driving cars is that the technology is not yet ready for wide-scale application. 

"If you go back three or four years, everybody thought they would be further along than they are," he said. 

But absent Congressional and regulator action in Washington, Abuelsamid said there's nothing stopping a company like Tesla from putting self-driving cars on the road as long as they are fully compliant with federal motor vehicle safety standards that require cars to have features like steering wheels and brake pedals. 

"Right now there aren't any standards," he said. "If you say can put 100,000 self-driving cars on the road without a waiver, companies could put them on the road without proper testing...

"If a company decides to be reckless and put technology into consumers' hands that isn't ready and people start dying, that's going to erode consumer confidence in the technology. You don't want unsafe cars on the road." 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who helped author self-driving legislation in 2017 that passed the U.S. House but failed in the U.S. Senate, said she is working to revive the measure as soon as possible. 

"When Google (now Waymo) began showing off their self-driving cars nearly a decade ago, they seemed quite close to being ready to deploy," said transportation systems analyst Eric Paul Dennis. "This has proven not to be the case."

"I've spoken to everybody about the clear need to get all the stakeholders together and get a bill done," Dingell said in a phone interview. 

Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit organization that advocates for consumer safety, last month rang a warning bell about the vulnerability of self-driving cars to malicious hacking. Jamie Court, president of the group, said many cars are already vulnerable, and that by 2022, two-thirds of new cars on American roads will have online connections to critical safety systems.

"Connecting the brakes, the engine, the steering mechanism of a car to the internet is dangerous, because cars can be hacked," he said. "Cars are computers."

He raised the scenario of a hostile government disabling the brakes of cars and steering them off the road: "We are talking about the possibility of a 9/11-style attack on America, and the carmakers remarkably know it, but haven't fixed it." 

Eric Paul Dennis, senior transportation systems analyst for the Center for Automotive Research's Transportation Systems Analysis Group, said autonomous testing has proven more complicated than automakers and technology companies were likely expecting when they began setting targets. 

"When Google (now Waymo) began showing off their self-driving cars nearly a decade ago, they seemed quite close to being ready to deploy," he said. "It was easy to believe that as sensors got better, processors got faster and data was collected, the problem would essentially solve itself. This has proven not to be the case." 

Dennis added: "Some of the early promises were made by people who didn’t really understand the artificial intelligence processes behind the technology. Other promises were made by those who understand artificial intelligence very well, but didn’t understand how nuanced the real world can be".

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing