Home Connected Car Self-Driving Self-driving cars continue to face little resistance from the federal government

Self-driving cars continue to face little resistance from the federal government

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The US Department of Transportation convened a “listening session” on autonomous vehicles at its headquarters in Washington, DC, last week — and the key word here is “listening.” It was a chance for the private sector and federal and state regulators to get together to talk about the future, in which human driving becomes passé and driverless cars become the dominant form of transportation.

Most people are still highly skeptical about self-driving cars, but if the government was at all nervous about the coming revolution in driverless technology, it didn’t show. In speech after speech, public officials emphasized the extreme laissez-faire approach they were taking to self-driving cars that they’ve been espousing for several years now. This technology must be allowed to progress unencumbered by government rules, they argue. All guidance would be completely voluntary, and anything that could be perceived as a mandate or a requirement was dismissed as an impediment to innovation.

“We are not in the business — we don’t know how — to pick the best technology or to pick the winners,” said Elaine Chao, secretary of transportation. “We’re not in the business of picking winners or losers. The market will decide what is the most effective solution.”

Chao has been repeating some version of this comment at auto shows and other public appearances since she was appointed as Trump’s transportation secretary. And in many respects, it’s not much of a departure from the position of her predecessor under the Obama administration. The DOT’s first policy guidance on autonomous vehicles, released back in 2016, was also entirely voluntary, outlining a 15-point “safety assessment” that manufacturers were encouraged to meet.

But in keeping with Trump’s ethos that all regulations are onerous, Chao has sought to minimize the role her department will play in overseeing the rollout of self-driving cars, while still trying to maintain some skin in the game. Her version of the Obama-era guidance document was noticeably shorter and contains the phrase “voluntary guidance” at least five times in the first five paragraphs. Automakers cheered the slimmer version, while some Democratic lawmakers accused the administration of caving to the industry and pressuring states to refrain from taking action. She said that a third version covering trucks, trains, and buses would be released this summer.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to mull over legislation that could open the door wide for more self-driving cars to hit the road. A bill in the Senate is stalled, though, after several Democratic senators put it on hold citing safety concerns. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey is advocating for a stricter standard for preventing cyber attacks and protecting consumer privacy in self-driving cars.

That could conflict with the hands-off attitude adopted by the Department of Transportation. “We are not going to be selecting what [technology] should be used,” Derek Kan, undersecretary for transportation policy said, as representatives from companies like Waymo, Uber, and GM listened. “We’re looking at ways to evaluate outcomes. Instead of a regulation that says, ‘Machine must have A, B and C in a vehicle’, we hope to look at how safe a vehicle is at the other end.”

It’s a delicate balance that the federal government must strike, especially with lobbyists from huge companies like Google and Uber spending millions of dollars to convince regulators that self-driving cars could usher in an era of safer streets with fewer road deaths. And with almost 40,000 fatalities in traffic accidents every year, it’s a noble mission. But safety advocates argue that even minimum requirements for the private sector could help ensure that our privacy is protected, our cars are safe from hackers, and that companies building these cars have an incentive to share data and disclose key metrics about their testing.

For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) could require companies that want to test autonomous vehicles on public roads to submit more detailed data beyond disengagement reports that some states like California currently require. Current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) cover everything from windshield wipers to brake fluids but say nothing about the perception of autonomous vehicles. The government could state definitively that certain sensors, like LIDAR or cameras, are required for the safe operation of a self-driving car. But then some would argue that the government is trying to pick which technology is best, and would thus be guilty of determining winners and losers.

Instead, regulators are advocating waivers and lifting the cap on the number of vehicles each year that are exempt from current FMVSS. This would, in turn, allow car and tech companies to flood the streets with cars that lack traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals. It’s a risky move, especially if people remain skeptical of the technology as recent surveys suggest.

“NHTSA is not doing enough and the car companies are not realizing any meaningful test data,” said Missy Cummings, a former naval pilot who runs Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory.

Traditionally, the divide between federal and state governments as related to motor vehicles has been simple: the feds dictate safety standards and issue recalls, while states license drivers and regulate behavior and enforce speeds limits. This could change in the future, as driverless cars become more dominant. The feds could see their role expand, while states take more of a backseat.

State governments are currently rushing to enact permissive regulations for autonomous vehicles in the hopes of convincing high-level companies launch testing programs within their borders. Twenty-one states and Washington, DC have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2017, 33 states have introduced legislation related to autonomous vehicles, up from 20 states in 2016. But if the Senate approves its legislation to preempt states from adopting a stricter standard than the federal government for self-driving cars, there could be confusion about which rules still apply.

During the listening session, transportation officials admitted to being slightly out of their league when it comes to the technology underpinning autonomous driving. “We as regulators have to realize that the AVs are coming,” said Steven Bradbury, general counsel at DOT. “I don’t share some the skepticism in terms of the timing, I think it’s coming really fast… this is the next transformational wave in transportation technology, and it’s going to be upon us in the very near term, whether we’re ready or not.”

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