Transportation

Driverless Vehicle Makers Urge Feds to Loosen Guidelines

A coalition led by Uber, Google, Lyft, Ford and Volvo made its first comments on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidelines for the testing and deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.

by Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / November 23, 2016

(TNS) — More test cars on the road, fewer human-enabled controls like steering wheels and brake pedals, and more protections for sensitive industry information are all on the wish list this year for developers working to make vehicles fully autonomous.

In comments filed on Tuesday, the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets — founded in April and led by Uber, Google, Lyft, Ford and Volvo — urged federal authorities to loosen guidelines issued in September on the testing and deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.

And the group wants states to do the same, telling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to “use this opportunity to affirmatively discourage states from embarking on creating a patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations that will stifle this emerging industry.

“NHTSA must play an important role in urging states and local entities not to rush into legislating simply because the subject matter is new and novel,” the group wrote.

The comments are the first from the group in response to NHTSA’s initial policy, which was the earliest peek into how the federal government will ensure safety without overreaching into the highly competitive research endeavors.

Uber Technologies Inc., working on autonomous technology at its research center in Pittsburgh, told the agency in separate comments this week that it began operating self-driving cars on roads in southwestern Pennsylvania only after “thorough testing and evaluation.”

“Before any rider experiences our technology, we validate it in simulation, test it on a track and test it on-road without passengers,” the company wrote. “We believe the potential of self-driving vehicles will only be realized if we are able to learn from real world situations, while gaining and preserving user trust. Through our Pittsburgh operations, we are accomplishing both.”

Uber added that it selected Pittsburgh for this endeavor “because of its local engineering talent, and because it is home to a number of challenging real-world test conditions, including rain and snow, bridges and urban roadways that are narrow and winding.”

NHTSA’s guidelines, which are voluntary and don’t currently have the force of law, ask that companies submit a 15-point checklist that documents how they are meeting each topic area in the guidance. The checklist — loosely modeled on the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of airline companies — asks for information on “data recording and sharing,” “crashworthiness,” “post-crash behavior” and even “ethical considerations.”

The guidelines were accompanied by an encouraging opinion piece from President Barack Obama, who said autonomous vehicles are evidence of American ingenuity and a cure for rising traffic deaths caused by human error. But he also said federal authorities would work with companies on rules to prevent accidents.

“Both government and industry have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Mr. Obama wrote in the Sept. 19 article. “And make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road.”

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, David Strickland, general counsel for the self-driving coalition and NHTSA chief from 2010 to 2014, said a fully automated car should not be regulated like an airplane.

“Nothing happens regards to airlines, airplanes or airports without the FAA saying so, which is a much different environment from NHTSA,” Mr. Strickland said. “The issue of sharing really comes down to what’s being shared.”

He went on to say that data sharing “doesn’t mean our innovators who worked very hard to figure out a pathway to resolve a particular problem to just openly share it with the rest of their competitors. There has to be a reasonable point that we can identify edge cases and they can figure out their solution.”

The group argued that the industry will need significantly larger fleets on the road for much longer than currently allowed. NHTSA now caps autonomous vehicle fleets operating on the road at 2,500 vehicles for up to two years.

It also pushed the agency to allow manufacturers the option to eliminate human controls, such as a steering wheel, turn signals, brake and gas pedals. “Clearly, you can save resources and have a better vehicle design, and, frankly, make the vehicle safer for the occupants in the ride,” Mr. Strickland said on Tuesday’s call.

The coalition notes it expects to make headway on its suggestions with NHTSA and Congress over the next year. But Mr. Strickland said on Tuesday it was not clear how President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team would affect the evolving guidance, other than to say that Mr. Trump is “clearly looking at having a lighter regulatory environment.”

Much would depend on who Mr. Trump selects for transportation secretary and head of NHTSA.

“It can really be a wide open field,” Mr. Strickland said of the NHTSA chief position. “So I’m just as curious as you are.”

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