Advocates Worry Trump Will Trample Self-Driving Regs

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Washington — Consumer safety groups are worried that President-elect Donald Trump will do away with proposed guidelines for self-driving car testing that President Barack Obama’s administration has been working on for years.

The new Republican president could be likely to reverse the Obama administration’s course on self-driving cars as part of his push to reduce the number of federal regulations that are impacting businesses, said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group.

“It’s not clear if anything (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has been up until now will survive into Trump’s administration,” Simpson said in an interview with The Detroit News. “There seems to be an anti-regulatory mentality to do away with as many regulations as possible, which would make robot cars even more of a wild, wild West than it is already is.”

The Transportation Department’s proposed self-driving rules focus on a set of 15 guidelines that call for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on their testing and safety of autonomous cars to federal regulators before the cars are sold to the public. Before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads, automakers would be required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if those systems fail.

Obama administration officials had talked about making the reporting requirements mandatory, but Simpson said Trump’s election could likely scramble that calculus.

Trump has appointed Shirley Ybarra, former senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, to lead his transition team for the Department of Transportation. The Reason Foundation has chided states like California for moving to require that self-driving cars have steering wheels and brake pedals.

Automakers and technology companies forged ahead with the push for the federal self-driving guidelines during a public meeting in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

“We at Ford Motor Company share NHTSA’s view that automated vehicles have the potential to revolutionize roadway safety and are working hard to deploy our own SAE Level 4 vehicle for geo-fenced ride-hailing or ride-sharing use in 2021,” Andrew Woelfling, director of smart mobility for Ford, told regulators during the D.C. forum.

Ford, which found itself in a campaign spat with Trump over plans to move small car production to Mexico, has promised to deliver a self-driving car by 2021.

Other automakers were also supportive of the proposed self-driving guidelines during the public meeting that was scheduled by the Obama administration. “The 15 vehicle performance guidance areas contained within the policy identify important areas of consideration for the safe deployment of highly automated vehicles,” said John Capp, director of safety strategies and vehicle programs at General Motors Co.

Insurers focus on liability

Insurers, meanwhile, raised concerns about liability issues that may develop during the transition from traditional autos to autonomous cars.

“While the future safety effects of automated vehicles is potentially very bright, the fact is that we are now experiencing a significant deterioration of highway safety that all stakeholders and the agency need to address urgently. And the transition period before all cars are self-driving will pose additional challenges,” said Dave Snyder, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America’s vice president of international policy.

“Insurers need unimpeded access to information and data for risk based pricing and fair and rapid claims settlement — both legally sanctioned and regulated activities, recognized under federal law,” Snyder continued. “And we can use the data to work with our customers to help them improve their safety.”

Simpson and other safety advocates have pushed federal regulators to place more stringent rules on self-driving car testing than the voluntary guidelines the Obama administration had been considering.

“Mere voluntary guidelines that can be ignored by the industry are completely inadequate to ensure that American families are not put at unreasonable risk during the testing and deployment of this technology,” Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs for Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, told regulators at the meeting on Thursday. “Automated vehicle technology must be subject to an effective regulatory framework that provides a level playing field for developers and manufacturers and guarantees public safety.”

Infrastructure is priority

Trump did not include self-driving cars on a list of transportation issues that was included on his campaign website. The president-elect focused more on issues involving rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and the impact of international trade on U.S. autoworkers. Trump’s campaign did promise to “provide maximum flexibility to the states” on transportation issues, however.

Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said “it is too soon to tell” how Trump is going to handle self-driving cars as president. “Trump is essentially a ‘fewer regulations/pro business’ guy, but in the case of self-driving cars, clear regulations are a necessity to move the technology forward,” Nerad said.

Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson said Friday he is worried that Trump will roll back the Obama administration’s efforts to move toward a national standard for self-driving car testing, which he says is necessary to ensure the safety of the emerging technology.

“I’m not sure we can trust OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to use public roads as their personal laboratories,” he said. “I’m afraid the step taken under the current administration will be completely undone. What had been done wasn’t enough, but at least we took a step forward.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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