Autonomous Rules to Remain Voluntary in the U.S.

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By Paul Eisenstein, RIDE TECH BLOG

January 17, 2020

The White House has announced plans regarding public testing of autonomous vehicles.

  • Dubbed AV 4.0, the guidelines would sync efforts by 38 different federal agencies that might impact autonomous vehicle development.
  • But the Trump Administration plans has few details and would remain voluntary.
  • The approach could both slow AV development and risk public safety, critics contend.

In an unusual alliance, automakers, federal regulators and safety advocates want uniform federal guidelines covering autonomous vehicle testing on public roads – but a top White House official said the Trump Administration plans to keep things working on a voluntary basis.

Speaking at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, U.S. Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao unveiled “AV 4.0,” asserting the proposal will help ensure the U.S. remains the leader in autonomous technology.

Chao insisted that what the White House did come up with would meet “simple, clear and consistent” goals to “improve safety, security and quality of life for all Americans.” But the proposal does not actually call for mandatory regulations widely sought at both the federal and private industry levels.

Congress has repeatedly failed to craft uniform guidelines superseding often conflicting state regulations complicating efforts to openly test self-driving vehicle technology on public roads.

An irony of the debate is that the auto and tech industries, which traditionally prefer limited government intervention, have actually sought federal intervention which they see as critical to speeding up the development of autonomous cars and trucks and then getting them into production.

Safety advocates, in turn, feel such rules are essential to ensuring pedestrians and motorists don’t become “human guinea pigs,” in the words of Consumer Watchdog, a California based non-profit. They point to numerous crashes involving autonomous prototypes, including a 2018 incident in which an Uber test vehicle struck and killed a woman walking her bicycle across the street in Tempe, Arizona.

“Manufacturers are not going to be objective in evaluating their own safety assessments,” Robert Sumwalt, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate panel during hearings last November. “There needs to be a federal look at these assessments to make sure that they are done properly.”

The lack of federal guidelines won’t shut down AV development efforts. There are a number of closed facilities, such as the University of Michigan’s MCity. And more than a dozen states allow testing on public roads, as well. But the rules vary widely from one location to another.

In Texas, testing is virtually unregulated, while California has strict guidelines that, among other things, require detailed reports whether there’s a crash or simply a situation where a human “backup operator” must take control.

How soon autonomous vehicles might get into production is uncertain. Industry experts acknowledge the development process is going slower than expected. In the lab, or in a limited situation, with a human ready to take control in an emergency, AV technology “is fairly simple to demonstrate right now,” Toyota Research Institute Director Gill Pratt told Ride. “However, safe deployment (in a production situation, without that backup driver) is a completely different proposition.”

AV advocates believe that by coming up with uniform standards they will be able to boost into the tens, even hundreds, of thousands the number of AV prototypes they’d be able to field on public roads, speeding up development.

Sec. Chao defended the relatively laissez faire approach of the administration’s AV 4.0 plan which, she said, would standardize efforts by 38 different federal departments and agencies, with an emphasis on safety, while also working together on security and cybersecurity.  But she offered no specifics on what that would translate into.

Congress may yet step in. In November, Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican heading the Senate Commerce Committee, said long-awaited legislation was being drafted, members of the committee working with their counterparts in the House of Representatives.

“As technology continues to improve, AVs will be increasingly part of our daily lives. Therefore, it is up to us to ensure that the safety benefits of these vehicles are fully realized,” Sen Wicker said, though it remains unclear when a proposal would be ready, whether the House would pass similar rules, and then whether the two could agree on a final measure.


Though it may take longer than expected, autonomous vehicles eventually are expected to take to U.S. highways, with proponents and critics agreeing that uniform federal rules are needed, both to permit testing on public roads and to ensure that is done safely.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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