Feds pre­view rules of the road for self-driv­ing cars

Jamaica Gleaner - - MARKET REPORTS - – AP

In this July 15, 2016 photo, a dou­ble-decker tour bus drives by an Audi self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle parked on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue, near the Capi­tol in Wash­ing­ton. OBAMA AD­MIN­IS­TRA­TION of­fi­cials are pre­view­ing lon­gawaited guid­ance that at­tempts to bring self-driv­ing cars to the na­tion’s road­ways safely – with­out cre­at­ing so many road­blocks that the tech­nol­ogy can’t make it to mar­ket quickly.

Tra­di­tional au­tomak­ers and tech com­pa­nies have been test­ing self­driv­ing pro­to­types on pub­lic roads for sev­eral years, with a hu­man in the driver’s seat just in case. The re­sults sug­gest that what once seemed like a tech­nol­ogy per­pet­u­ally over the horizon ap­pears to be fast ap­proach­ing, es­pe­cially with car com­pa­nies an­nounc­ing a string of in­vest­ments and ac­qui­si­tions in re­cent months.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials have been strug­gling with how to cap­i­talise on the tech­nol­ogy’s promised safety ben­e­fits – the cars can re­act faster than peo­ple, but don’t drink or get dis­tracted – while mak­ing sure they are ready for wide­spread use. The new guid­ance rep­re­sents their cur­rent think­ing, which they hope will bring some order to what has been a chaotic roll-out so far.

Self-driv­ing cars have the po­ten­tial to save thou­sands of lives lost on the na­tion’s roads each year and to change the lives of the el­derly and the dis­abled, US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama said in an op-ed pub­lished Mon­day by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Safer, more ac­ces­si­ble driv­ing. Less con­gested, less pol­luted roads. That’s what har­ness­ing tech­nol­ogy for good can look like,” Obama wrote. But he added: “We have to get it right. Amer­i­cans de­serve to know they’ll be safe to­day even as we de­velop and de­ploy the tech­nolo­gies of to­mor­row.”


One self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy ex­pert said the over­all tenor of the guid­ance sig­nalled that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment truly has em­braced au­ton­o­mous driv­ing. “In terms of just at­ti­tude, this is huge,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of South Carolina who closely tracks the tech­nol­ogy. He also cau­tioned that many de­tails re­main un­clear.

The gov­ern­ment did make clear that the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion will seek re­calls if semi-au­ton­o­mous sys­tems don’t make driv­ers pay at­ten­tion.

The agency, which is part of the Trans­porta­tion De­part­ment, re­leased guide­lines show­ing how NHTSA can use its re­call au­thor­ity to reg­u­late new tech­nol­ogy. “It em­pha­sises that semi-au­ton­o­mous driv­ing sys­tems that fail to ad­e­quately ac­count for the pos­si­bil­ity that a dis­tracted or inat­ten­tive driver-oc­cu­pant might fail to re­take con­trol of the ve­hi­cle in a safety-crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion may be de­fined as an un­rea­son­able risk to safety and sub­ject to re­call,” the de­part­ment said in a state­ment.

NHTSA says the guide­lines aren’t aimed at elec­tric car maker Tesla Mo­tors. But the bul­letin would ad­dress events like a fa­tal crash in Florida that oc­curred while a Tesla Model S was op­er­at­ing on the com­pany’s semi­au­tonomous Au­topi­lot sys­tem. The sys­tem can brake when it spots ob­sta­cles and keep cars in their lanes. But it failed to spot a cross­ing trac­tor-trailer and nei­ther the sys­tem nor the driver braked. Au­topi­lot al­lows driv­ers to take their hands off the steer­ing wheel for short pe­ri­ods.

Tesla has since an­nounced mod­i­fi­ca­tions so Au­topi­lot re­lies more on radar and less on cam­eras, which it said were blinded by sun­light in the Florida crash. The com­pany has main­tained that Au­topi­lot is a driver-as­sist sys­tem and said it warns driv­ers they must be ready to take over at any time.


Un­der the over­all guide­lines, the fed­eral trans­porta­tion reg­u­la­tors, rather than states, should be in charge of reg­u­lat­ing self-driv­ing cars since the ve­hi­cles are es­sen­tially con­trolled by soft­ware, not peo­ple, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said.

States have his­tor­i­cally set the rules for li­cens­ing driv­ers, but when the driver be­comes a com­puter “we in­tend to oc­cupy the field here,” Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary An­thony Foxx said. States, he said, should stick to reg­is­ter­ing the cars and deal­ing with ques­tions of li­a­bil­ity when they crash.

Au­tomak­ers should also be al­lowed to self-cer­tify the safety of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles by fol­low­ing a 15-point check­list for safe de­sign, de­vel­op­ment, test­ing and de­ploy­ment, said of­fi­cials who briefed re­porters. Though com­pa­nies are not re­quired to fol­low the guid­ance – it is vol­un­tary and does not carry the force of for­mal reg­u­la­tion – Foxx said he ex­pects com­pli­ance.

“It’s in their vested in­ter­est to go through the rigours that we’re lay­ing out here” to gain the con­fi­dence of both reg­u­la­tors and the pub­lic, Foxx said.

In some­what con­tra­dic­tory fash­ion, of­fi­cials also said the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion is ex­am­in­ing whether it should have “pre­mar­ket ap­proval” au­thor­ity, in which the gov­ern­ment in­spects and ap­proves new tech­nolo­gies like au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. That would be a de­par­ture from the agency’s his­toric self-cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem and might re­quire ac­tion from Con­gress.

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