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Self-Driving Car Policy by U.S. Underscores Promise and Peril

The Obama administration released its 15 guidelines for self-driving vehicles to automakers on Sep. 20. Here's what you need to know.

Author: Jeff Plungis

The new U.S. policy on self-driving cars received a mixed reaction from highway-safety advocates who acknowledged the life-saving potential though warned of a world of “human guinea pigs.”

The Transportation Department’s new guidelines give carmakers and states “the green light to innovate while keeping safety at the forefront,” said Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council, an Itasca, Illinois-based nonprofit that seeks to reduce injuries and deaths on the road.

At the same time, there’s a danger that untested technology will be foisted on unwitting consumers, said Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance that includes consumer, medical and safety groups, along with insurance companies. Regulators must continue to exert strong oversight, with minimum performance requirements, rigorous testing and verified data, she said.

“Consumers cannot be ‘human guinea pigs’ in this experiment, and the federal government cannot be a passive spectator,” Gillan said.

The 15-point Safety Assessment topics include:

  1. Operational Design and Domain
  2. Object and Event Detection and Response
  3. all back (Minimal Risk Condition)
  4. Validation Methods
  5. Registration and Certification
  6. Data Recording and Sharing
  7. Post-Crash Behavior
  8. Privacy
  9. System Safety
  10. Vehicle Cybersecurity
  11. Human Machine Interface
  12. Crashworthiness
  13. Consumer Education and Training
  14. Ethical Consideration
  15. Federal, State, and Local Laws

Automaker Flexibility

The Obama administration’s voluntary guidelines for self-driving cars, formally unveiled Tuesday, include 15 benchmarks automakers will need to meet before their autonomous vehicles can hit the road. Automakers are being given freedom to come up with their own ways of making self-driving cars safe in each category, but they’re being asked to explain them in detail before putting them on 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. 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.

“There has never been a moment like this, a moment where we can build a new culture of safety as a new transportation technology emerges that has the potential to save even more lives, and one that enhances the lives of so many Americans,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday.

According to new guidelines, Tesla and other self-driving carmakers would have to make their vehicle performance assessment data public.
Image: Tesla

‘Proactive Safety’

The new federal policy builds on a philosophy of “proactive safety” at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Foxx said. Building on models that have made aviation safer, NHTSA would find ways for companies to share information so that best practices spread quickly throughout the industry, he said.

Foxx was joined by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers at the Tuesday news conference. MADD’s national president, Colleen Sheehey-Church, said self-driving cars have the potential to greatly reduce the more than 10,000 fatalities a year caused by drunk driving.

“A self-driving car can’t get drunk,” Sheehey-Church said. “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.”

Other 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” instead of “assuring public safety with minimum federal safety standards.” NHTSA’s voluntary agreement rolling out automatic emergency braking on most vehicles for sale in the U.S. is “useless,” she said, because a fatal Tesla crash in May showed that the technology doesn’t always work.

In that incident, a Tesla 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 and the driver was killed.

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.

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.

The new policy provides a path for going fully driverless by removing the requirement that a human serve as a backup, Transportation Department officials said Tuesday. There will also be ways to eliminate steering wheels and brake pedals, so long as companies can demonstrate to NHTSA that they’ve evaluated their systems for safety. 

Under the new set of guidelines, automakers will be deciding for themselves how to meet each of the 15 safety tests. They’ll then document their evidence for NHTSA. They’ll be providing a lot more information up front than manufacturers of traditional cars, which only have to certify that their models meet minimal federal safety standards. 

The development is important because some state regulators, including those in 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.

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