Automakers Want to Test More Self-Driving Cars on U.S. Roads

  • Companies asking Congress to aid deployment, clarify oversight
  • House and Senate working on autonomous vehicle legislation

Race To Build Self-Driving Cars Accelerates

Automakers -- and aspiring automakers -- are seeking permission to put more experimental self-driving cars on the road to speed their development.

The companies want Congress to expand a cap on how many cars can be deployed under waivers from safety regulators, according to testimony from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo unit are racing to put autonomous cars on the road. Waymo has signed partnerships with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Lyft Inc. to develop the technology. And carmakers from BMW AG to General Motors Co. have opened sizable Silicon Valley offices and dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire autonomous vehicle startups.

GM said Tuesday it was expanding its fleet of Bolt electric cars outfitted with self-driving gear to 180 vehicles from the 50 cars already being tested in San Francisco, metro Detroit and Scottsdale, Arizona. Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook on Tuesday confirmed the company is working on self-driving systems and views autonomous systems as a core technology.

But automakers say they’ll need far more vehicles accruing autonomous test miles to perfect the technology that proponents believe can make a major dent in the more than 30,000 annual traffic fatalities in the U.S.

Related: GM Expands Fleet of Self-Driving Chevrolet Bolt Electric Cars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can allow automakers to field vehicles that don’t comply with the letter of federal auto-safety standards under certain limited circumstances. One exemption allows carmakers to field-test new safety features while another allows for vehicles that don’t meet specific safety requirements but exceed the overall safety of conventional vehicles. 

But both exemptions are capped at 2,500 vehicles per year, and the latter requires companies provide the agency with detailed analysis showing how a vehicle is more safe.

The automakers are asking Congress to dramatically expand the number of cars they can deploy, clarify state and federal oversight roles and direct regulators to update decades-old vehicle regulations that implicitly require a human driver.

"Members of the Auto Alliance share the belief that lives could be lost and that safety improvements will be delayed without your help," said Mitch Bainwol, chief executive officer of the manufacturers’ alliance, whose members include Ford Motor Co., GM and Toyota Motor Sales USA.

Lacking Uniformity

"As we meet today, the U.S. lacks a critical uniform national framework to advance these technologies," Bainwol testified Wednesday to the Senate Commerce committee.

Developers of autonomous vehicles are seeking stronger federal action amid a flurry of activity at the state level.

In prepared testimony for the hearing, Rob Csongor, vice president of Nvidia Corp.’s automotive business, said a patchwork of state self-driving car regulations hampers development of the technology.

"It would be enormously beneficial to have a unified set of regulations across all states," he said.

Nvidia supplies computer chips and software with artificial intelligence capabilities that automakers and other companies use in their self-driving systems.

Eighteen U.S. states have passed autonomous-vehicle legislation in recent years, and more than 30 state houses have introduced self-driving car bills in 2017 alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Just last week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order allowing self-driving cars on public roads.

Seeking Clarity

Senators John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and Michigan Democrat Gary Peters announced in February that they would work together on autonomous-vehicle legislation.

In opening remarks, committee Chairman Thune said outdated U.S. vehicle rules that fail to contemplate driverless vehicles need to be updated without undermining safety. Peters said he and Thune would "hopefully, very soon" introduce bipartisan, self-driving car legislation guided by a set of principles released Tuesday. 

The legislation will aim to prioritize safety, remove regulatory barriers, be technology-neutral, bolster cybersecurity protections in autos and draw clearer lines between state and federal oversight roles, they said.

The duo released principles of their forthcoming legislation on Tuesday along with Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, signaling they would clarify state and federal regulatory roles and allow the vehicles to be deployed while vehicle safety standards are reworked to accommodate driverless cars.

Meanwhile, members of the House Energy and Commerce committee are working on a package of autonomous-vehicle bills of their own that could be introduced in the coming weeks. An nine-page overview provided to stakeholders in March from committee staff outlined 16 bills tied to autonomous vehicles.

Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts said new rules requiring cybersecurity protections in autonomous and connected vehicle systems are needed and dismissed the idea of voluntary cybersecurity standards backed by industry.

"Unfortunately, the industry moves slowly," he said. "The best players move voluntarily and the worst players don’t. The worst players are the ones that cause all the damage on our highways."

Jacqueline Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in prepared remarks that voluntary safety standards are inadequate to protect public safety. She did not testify at the hearing, but said in written remarks that companies deploying autonomous technology should be required to meet standards governing the functionality of self-driving systems in addition to existing safety standards for vehicle design and performance.

— With assistance by Alex Webb

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