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A Move to Ease the Path for Driverless Vehicles Draws Fire from Safety Groups

A Waymo self driving car performing tests on a street in Santa Clara, CA 

U.S. transportation officials are seeking to ease deployment of driverless cars by amending certain safety standards, drawing strong protest from groups who say the move is premature because the safety of  self-driving technology is unproven. The proposal by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, would make changes that account for the elimination of steering wheels and foot pedals in self-driving cars. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said the proposed rule change, published last month, is designed “to improve safety and update rules that no longer make sense such as requiring manual driving controls on autonomous vehicles.’’ But road safety advocates contend that before clearing a path for driverless vehicles, NHTSA should first set performance standards to prove they are at least as safe as human drivers. “At a time when experts including the National Transportation Safety Board and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are continuing to identify serious safety shortcomings with driverless car systems, it is stunning the the U.S. Department of Transportation is focused on aggressively furthering its hands-off approach to hands-free driving,’’ said Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-DC based group, in a prepared statement.

“We’re concerned that they’re dismantling safety regulations,” Cathy Chase, president of the group, said in an interview with FairWarning. “It’s more of a vantage point of, ‘What can we do to get autonomous vehicles quicker?’ as opposed to ‘How do we make sure that it’s done safely and protecting all road users?’’’ Her group is one of many expected to provide comments on the proposed changes to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that automakers must meet in order to sell their vehicles. The most significant change they seek is adoption of minimum performance standards for the systems that work together for a car to drive itself, including cameras and other vision technologies that help it see, as well as cybersecurity to deter hackers. But industry officials cheered the proposal. ”We applaud the work of Secretary Chao and the Department of Transportation in issuing this important proposal,” according to a prepared statement by John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, made up of major automakers, electronics and tech firms with a stake in driverless technology. ”This is great news for roadway safety,” Bozzella said. ”There are no other transportation safety or mobility solutions that hold as much promise to provide as many benefits to the traveling public as automated vehicle technologies.”


NHTSA’s mission is “to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes,” according to its web site. Yet it has stopped short of regulating self-driving cars, opting instead to issue voluntary guidelines and leaving regulation to individual states.

Within days of NHTSA issuing the proposal, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report on two fatal accidents involving Autopilot, an autonomous feature of Tesla vehicles, including one in March 2018 in Mountain View, California, in which the driver appeared to have been playing a video game when he was killed in the crash. The safety board, an advisory agency with no regulatory powers, previously had criticized NHTSA’s oversight of autonomous features in cars made by Tesla and other manufacturers, calling NHTSA “misguided, because it essentially relies on waiting for problems to occur rather than addressing safety issues proactively.” NTSB recommends that new cars with partially automated systems must include driver-monitoring systems. The Insurance Institute advocated the same thing in a report it issued earlier this year. Specifically, it recommends escalating attention reminders for drivers who are using semi-autonomous driving features to keep them from relying too much on  technologies that still need their input. Multiple polls show Americans just aren’t comfortable with self-driving technology. Period. According to the American Automobile Association, three-quarters of US drivers say they’re afraid to ride in a driverless car. Two-thirds of respondents to a 2019 Reuters/Ipsos survey said self-driving cars should be held to higher government safety standards than traditional, human-driven vehicles; half of them also thought autonomous vehicles were more dangerous. Eight states allow testing of autonomous vehicles, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. In California, 64 companies have permits to test autonomous vehicles on public roads as long as a human safety driver is present. Those companies are required to file so-called disengagement reports that show when a vehicle’s autonomous mode was deactivated due to a failure of the self-driving technology or a situation that required the test driver to take control Those deactivations provide some of the only publicly available data on the safety of driverless vehicles, but it is self-reported and allows companies to withhold information that could be helpful in evaluating their safety. “The most important piece of what NHTSA can do as a regulator is to ensure that some of these data elements that are being recorded and captured during these experimental trials is available for independent study,” said David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute, in an interview with FairWarning. Harkey acknowledged that companies want to protect proprietary data in an industry that has so far spent at least $16 billion to research and develop autonomous driving technology, according to one estimate, with little, or no, return on their investment. But “there has to be a way to anonymize the data and make it publicly available for independent evaluation,” he said. In 2019, almost 39,000 people lost their lives to traffic crashes in the U.S., according to the National Safety Council; another 4.4 million were injured seriously enough to receive medical attention. Human error is the cause of 94 percent of crashes, NHTSA says, often  due to speeding, drunk driving and distraction. And that sobering statistic is what’s driving the push to remove fallible humans from the driver’s seat. Still, little data exists to show that vehicles with automated driving features, such as lane-changing and lane-centering, are safer than humans, let alone fully autonomous vehicles that lack manual controls for a human to even take over. And much of the data that does exist is self-reported by the companies that are making those systems. In its notice of proposed rulemaking, NHTSA said automated driving systems may have lifesaving potential. But it also admitted that “much of this potential is currently unsubstantiated and the impacts unknown. The agency believes the most prudent path forward is to remove unnecessary barriers to innovation while ensuring that occupants continue to receive the same protections afforded by existing regulations.” NHTSA is accepting public comments on its notice of proposed rulemaking through May 29.  Myron Levin contributed reporting.  

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