Senators cite fatal Uber crash in push for mandatory self-driving rules

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Democrats on a U.S. Senate committee that oversees transportation issues pressed Trump administration officials to reverse course on their stance that the federal government cannot compel automakers to publicly release self-driving safety assessment, citing a call from the National Transportation Safety Board for more stringent oversight. 

In a ruling issued Tuesday, the NTSB concluded that distraction caused by a personal cellphone call is the probable immediate cause of a 2018 crash in which an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian.

More broadly, the federal agency criticized Uber for an "inadequate safety culture" that contributed to the crash. Three shortcomings were cited: Uber's inadequate safety risk assessment procedures; ineffective oversight of vehicle operators; and lack of adequate mechanisms to address complacency by operators as the cars drove themselves.

This image taken from video provided by ABC-15 in Tempe, Arizona, shows investigators at the scene of a crash involving a self-driving Uber car that struck and killed a woman pushing a bicycle.

Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said those findings should spur the Trump administration to make compliance with self-driving guidelines that have been issued by the Department of Transportation mandatory. 

"Over 80 companies are currently testing automated vehicles on the public roadways and we need to know that everyone has safety at the forefront of their decisions," said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top ranking Democrat on the panel. 

"Some of these self-assessments read more like a marketing brochure than a critical assessment," Cantwell continued. "So I do think it raises a question about what kind of structure we have in place to make sure that these safety safeguards are not just voluntary and that they have to be meet, and make sure that regulators are playing their role." 

Self-driving safety assessments have been submitted by 17 companies, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Uber, Apple and Waymo, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Acting NHTSA Administrator James Owens defended the White House's largely voluntary approach to self-driving regulation. 

"We established the safety assessment letter process as a voluntary process to encourage industry to better educate the public and to come forward with more information," he said. "I can tell you behind the scenes, the developers are in constant communication with our staff to discuss technical issues. Those discussions help us understand what technologies are being pursued and what the effectiveness of those technologies are." 

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt argued forcefully for the Trump administration to adopt his agency's recommended stance that it should be mandatory for automakers to publicly submit safety reports on their autonomous-vehicle testing. 

"We feel that NHTSA needs to actually require AV manufacturers to submit an safety self-assessment," Sumwalt said. "NHTSA should then review it and assess it. That is something we recommended yesterday. We feel that needs to be done." 

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the chairman of the panel, said the conversation in Washington about self-driving cars should focus on the potential safety benefits of the  technology, even as lawmakers debate the proper regulatory framework. 

"I think a healthy degree of skepticism is always good," he said. "At the same time, I think a decade or two from now, we’ll look back and be amazed that there was ever a question that AVs will save lives and make the traveling public safer."

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 have accused 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. 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who championed the self-driving bill, said the problems experienced in the Uber crash show the need for a federal framework for self-driving testing 

He said that until cars are fully capable of driving themselves with no human engagement, it's a pretty big expectation to require drivers stay engaged behind the wheel.

"It's not what we do as human beings generally," he said. "We'll over-rely on a technology and if it's not capable of actually carrying out all of the duties that you think it's going to carry out, that can lead to tragic consequences."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing