Self-Driving Cars Must Meet 15 Benchmarks in U.S. Guidance

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Lyft Co-Founder Says Most Rides to Be Autonomous By 2021
  • Long-awaited rules carmakers sought to be issued Tuesday
  • Government heeded calls from manufacturers for flexibility

The Obama administration’s proposed guidelines for self-driving cars, to be formally unveiled Tuesday, include 15 benchmarks automakers will need to meet before their autonomous vehicles can hit the road.

The automakers will have to show how their virtual drivers will function, what happens if they fail and how they’ve been tested, according to a preview by the U.S. Transportation Department. Companies developing the cars -- such as Tesla Motors Inc., General Motors Co. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. -- must make vehicle performance assessments public so regulators and other companies can evaluate them.

“It’s in their vested interest to be as up front and transparent as possible,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday on a call with reporters. “There’s market risk in putting a product out there that doesn’t meet the expectations of the public.”

Companies that have invested in developing the vehicles say federal leadership is needed to keep states from passing their own contradictory laws. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, whose members include Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc., supports standardizing automated car policies among the states, spokesman David Strickland said in a statement.

‘Thoughtful’ Guidelines

At the same time, companies have urged regulators to use a light touch, so as to not kill off innovation -- a pleading the administration appears to have heeded.

Ford Motor Co. called the administration’s guidelines “thoughtful” and an attempt to ensure the U.S. continues to innovate.

“Importantly, the guidance will help establish the basis for a national framework that enables the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles,” according to a statement from the Dearborn, Michigan-based company. “Strides in this technology have the potential to improve safety on our roads and reduce congestion in urban areas.”

Safety advocates responded cautiously.

Great Promise

"The manufacturers always complain about new federal protections, but autonomous cars are a whole new technology with great promise but also with the potential for serious public harm,” said Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of NHTSA and a leading consumer advocate.

The government, she said in a statement, "should not rely instead on mere guidance."

Questions about self-driving car safety were elevated in July, when a fatal crash involving a Tesla vehicle was made public. The incident happened May 7 when the Model S was being driven by the car’s “autopilot” system. The car failed to distinguish between a white truck blocking the road and the brightly lit sky, Tesla said.

The Advocates of Highway and Auto Safety issued a statement Tuesday applauding the government’s "proactive approach" on the issue of autonomously operated cars. But, it warned, automakers should not be permitted to rush self-driving cars to market and treat consumers like “human guinea pigs.”

For a Bloomberg QuickTake on driverless cars, click here.

Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she supported the idea of autonomous vehicles. “A self-driving car can’t get drunk. A self-driving car can’t get distracted. And a self-driving car will follow the traffic laws and prioritize safety for pedestrians and bicyclists,” she said in a statement released by the Transportation Department.

The new guidelines include recommendations for states to pass legislation on introducing self-driving cars safely on their highways. It says states should continue to license human drivers, enforce traffic laws, inspect vehicles for safety and regulate insurance and liability. The federal government, it said, should set standards for equipment, including the computers that could potentially take over the driving function. It will also continue to investigate safety defect and enforce recalls.

President Barack Obama wrote an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying automated vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of people who die on the roads. The administration’s guidance will promote safety, he wrote.

“If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road,” Obama wrote. “We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety."

Annual Updates

Portions of the proposed guidelines will be effective immediately. Other elements will go into effect after public comments are received and analyzed. The government said it will update its self-driving car guidelines annually.

Earlier this year, the Transportation Department said it would allow automakers that can demonstrate they have developed a safe autonomous vehicle to apply for exemptions to certain rules. It marked a new approach to auto regulations designed to ensure the government doesn’t stand in the way of technological progress.

Quick Response

Regulators promised a quick response to companies that ask for interpretations of safety regulations applied to new autonomous features that seem to fall through the cracks of current rules. In one of the first applications of that policy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in February that Google’s artificial intelligence system would be considered a driver under federal rules.

“We’ve envisioned a future where you can take your hands off the wheel, and the wheel out of the car,” said Jeff Zients, director of the White House’s National Economic Council. “Your commute becomes productive and restful rather than exhausting.”

Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s administrator, has said the self-driving car plan would be key to the agency’s attempts to reduce human error, which the agency estimates is a factor in 94 percent of fatal car crashes. Those crashes killed more than 35,000 people in the U.S. last year.

Emerging Technology

The guidelines being issued Tuesday attempt to clarify how current rules and regulations, formed in the 1960s, will be applied to emerging technology. The Transportation Department plans on issuing interpretation letters explaining how emerging technologies can comply with current law, promising to respond to company requests in 60 days.

The new rules include a path for going fully driverless by removing the requirement that a human serve as a backup, according to two people familiar with the rulemaking. Bryan Thomas, a NHTSA spokesman, declined to comment on that before Tuesday’s formal announcement.

The development is important because some state regulators, including California, have proposed that humans must be ready to take over in robot cars at a moment’s notice. Google’s self-driving car project and others have objected, saying that limitation could stifle development of the technology because it would require robot rides to have steering wheels, gas and brake pedals, at least in the test phase.

California’s Proposal

Federal safety regulators appear ready to follow the precedent they already set for Google earlier this year, when it recognized its self-driving software as the “driver” of its fully autonomous test vehicles. The new federal rules are just proposals and much could change, said the people, who asked not to be identified revealing internal discussions. But it would would be welcome by companies like Google, Uber and Ford, which plan to deploy fully autonomous vehicles within the next five years.

General Motors expressed support for the effort to speed the deployment of the vehicles, which it said could dramatically improve safety.

"We welcome the effort, will review the guidance and look forward to continuing the constructive dialogue on how to safely deploy AVs as quickly as possible," the company said in a written statement.

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