New vol­un­tary U.S. safety guide­lines for driver­less cars give de­vel­op­ers even more free­dom

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL LARIS michael.laris@wash­

de­vel­op­ers’ first up­dated safety guide­lines from the

Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pand on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s al­ready hands-off ap­proach.

Each day, driver­less cars carry pas­sen­gers around U.S. cities big and small. But fed­eral of­fi­cials — driven by bi­par­ti­san con­cerns about sti­fling a promis­ing in­dus­try or seem­ing too old-fash­ioned — have not im­posed any new safety re­quire­ments.

On Tues­day, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion weighed in with its first set of sug­ges­tions for how au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles should be man­aged. It con­tin­ues — and, in sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant ways, ex­tends — the gen­er­ally hands-off ap­proach taken un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which re­leased the first set of vol­un­tary guide­lines last year.

Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao an­nounced the “2.0” ver­sion of the fed­eral pol­icy in Ann Ar­bor, Mich. The guide­lines con­tinue to rely on technology com­pa­nies and au­tomak­ers to vol­un­tar­ily sub­mit in­for­ma­tion ex­plain­ing why their cars are safe and how their pas­sen­gers will be pro­tected.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, the pol­icy was built around a 15-point safety check­list, cov­er­ing ar­eas such as crash­wor­thi­ness, how cars are meant to re­spond to haz­ards and where they are de­signed to drive. Un­der Pres­i­dent Trump, sev­eral key ar­eas were dropped from the list, in­clud­ing pri­vacy and eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.

Those were re­moved be­cause they were “spec­u­la­tive in na­ture and out­side” the author­i­ties of the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, ac­cord­ing an ex­pla­na­tion of the change that ac­com­pa­nied the re­vised guid­ance. “Th­ese are im­por­tant ar­eas for fur­ther dis­cus­sion and re­search, but it would be pre­ma­ture to in­clude those con­sid­er­a­tions in this doc­u­ment,” ac­cord­ing to NHTSA.

The new guid­ance also re­peat­edly em­pha­sizes the fact that it is vol­un­tary and says the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment “strongly en­cour­ages” states not to make el­e­ments of it manda­tory or step into ve­hi­cle safety mat­ters con­trolled by the fed­eral govern­ment.

Ear­lier this year, Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials pro­posed re­quir­ing that com­pa­nies pro­vide them with copies of the vol­un­tary let­ters the firms sub­mit to NHTSA.

A NHTSA of­fi­cial said it is “a much cleaner and stream­lined ap­proach” to make com­pa­nies re­spon­si­ble for re­leas­ing their own let­ters, rather than hav­ing them come through fed­eral safety of­fi­cials, which left the mis­taken im­pres­sion their con­tent had to be ap­proved in Wash­ing­ton.

“It’s all on them to make it pub­lic,” said the of­fi­cial, who spoke to re­porters un­der ground rules re­quir­ing he not be named. “Now it’s more of a ques­tion to the com­pa­nies: Did you make your as­sess­ment pub­lic? And, if not, why not?”

The fed­eral govern­ment’s largely lais­sez faire ap­proach has come off with­out ma­jor prob­lems. While a deadly Tesla crash raised ques­tions about the safe use of par­tially au­to­mated ve­hi­cles and the dan­ger of driv­ers be­ing lulled into com­pla­cency, there have been no known U.S. fa­tal­i­ties in cars de­signed to do all the driv­ing. But some con­sumer safety ad­vo­cates have warned that safety over­sight is lack­ing.

Missy Cum­mings, who heads Duke Univer­sity’s Hu­mans and Au­ton­omy Lab, said com­pa­nies should be re­quired to meet ba­sic safety stan­dards.

“We were al­ready talk­ing about vol­un­tary re­quire­ments. Now we’re try­ing to re­lax the vol­un­tary re­quire­ments to be even more re­laxed,” Cum­mings said. At a min­i­mum, she said, com­pa­nies put­ting driver­less cars in use should have to guar­an­tee their cars can de­tect peo­ple on the side of the road, in­clud­ing state troop­ers, con­struc­tion crews and mo­torists chang­ing tires.

Ad­vo­cates for vol­un­tary guide­lines ar­gued for the safety po­ten­tial of the technology.

“Since the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion was es­tab­lished in 1966, there have been more than 2.2 mil­lion mo­tor-ve­hi­clere­lated fa­tal­i­ties in the United States,” Chao said in a state­ment. Au­to­mated driv­ing sys­tems “have the po­ten­tial to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce high­way fa­tal­i­ties by ad­dress­ing the root cause of th­ese tragic crashes,” she said.

Gen­eral Mo­tors com­mended the pol­icy up­date, say­ing it “pro­vides clear, stream­lined, and flex­i­ble guid­ance for the safe and re­spon­si­ble de­sign, man­u­fac­ture, and de­ploy­ment of self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles.”

From San Francisco to the Phoenix area to Pitts­burgh, tech com­pa­nies and car­mak­ers have tested the met­tle of their young robo-cars on pub­lic roads, work­ing out per­for­mance kinks along with hu­man driv­ers. But un­like hu­man driv­ers, who have to pass a driv­ing test, driver­less ve­hi­cles are not re­quired to meet spe­cific safety stan­dards con­cern­ing au­to­ma­tion.

Tech com­pa­nies and many state of­fi­cials ar­gue that cur­rent fed­eral law al­lows com­pa­nies to re­place driv­ers with al­go­rithms and sen­sors as long as the ba­sic ma­chin­ery of the cars fol­lows ex­ist­ing ve­hi­cle safety stan­dards. That means au­ton­o­mous cars can tool along high­ways as long as they have a steer­ing wheel, even if it’s just there largely for dec­o­ra­tion.

Gen­eral in­dus­try prac­tice among com­pa­nies de­vel­op­ing driver­less technology is to have safety driv­ers sit­ting be­hind the wheel as chap­er­ons, ready to reach in and seize con­trol if the sys­tems freeze. That is also good for re­search pur­poses and, pre­sum­ably, to lower li­a­bil­ity in case of a prob­lem. But some states have ar­gued there is no le­gal re­quire­ment for hu­man driv­ers to be there. Congress has be­gun wad­ing in. The House last week passed a bi­par­ti­san bill ad­dress­ing key con­cerns of au­tomak­ers and tech com­pa­nies, while also tak­ing on safety ques­tions.

The House bill in­structs Chao to re­quire “safety as­sess­ment cer­ti­fi­ca­tions” that demon­strate driver­less cars “are likely to ... func­tion as in­tended and con­tain fail safe features.” That would have to be done within two years.

The bill also pre­vents states from reg­u­lat­ing “the de­sign, con­struc­tion, or per­for­mance” of au­to­mated ve­hi­cles, say­ing that power rests in Wash­ing­ton. Driver­less de­vel­op­ers have been largely uni­fied in op­pos­ing what they call a “patch­work” of reg­u­la­tions that they say would stymie the in­dus­try and un­der­cut in­ter­state travel.

The Se­nate re­leased a staff draft last week that showed de­bate is con­tin­u­ing on key ar­eas, in­clud­ing on how to treat com­mer­cial truck­ing, li­a­bil­ity is­sues and how far the fed­eral govern­ment should go in pre­empt­ing states from weigh­ing in with their own re­quire­ments.


A self-driv­ing Uber test car makes its way through San Francisco traf­fic in March.

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