Automakers, Safety Advocates Warn U.S. Over Rush To Deploy Autonomous Cars

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WASHINGTON — Auto industry and consumer representatives warned Friday that U.S. auto safety regulators' push to aid autonomous car deployments may be too aggressive, and urged greater transparency and public input in policies covering self-driving technology.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Friday held the first of two public hearings to get input as it prepares policy guidance for states, automakers and tech companies about when and how autonomous vehicles should be allowed on U.S. roads. It has vowed to complete the recommendations by July.

NHTSA "should not bind itself to arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines at the expense of robust and thoughtful policy analysis," said Paul Scullion, safety manager at the Association of Global Automakers, a trade group representing Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and other major foreign automakers. "NHTSA should instead consider the development incrementally."

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said Friday the agency must move quickly, noting cars with significant self-driving features like Tesla Motors Inc.’s autopilot function are already on the road.

Without NHTSA action "people are going to just keep putting stuff out on the road with no guidance on how do we do this the right way," Rosekind said.

Yet both industry and consumer representatives suggested that formal rules may be needed for autonomous cars.

The formal rulemaking process, while time-consuming, has merits, Scullion said. Alternative policy tools may be faster, but they “likely come at the expense of more rigorous development” and may need to be continually revisited over time.

Douglas Longhitano, a senior engineer at Honda R&D Americas, warned that NHTSA guidelines for self-driving cars would likely be taken up by state policymakers, turning de facto regulations into laws.

“Development of these operational guidelines needs to be conducted in an open and transparent process with significant opportunity for stakeholder input and public review, not unlike the current rulemaking process used in the development of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” Longhitano said.

Major automakers and technology companies led by Alphabet Inc.'s Google unit are racing to develop and sell vehicles that can drive themselves, but they have complained that state and federal safety rules are impeding testing and ultimate deployment of such vehicles.

Google has logged more than 1.5 million miles of autonomous vehicle testing.

Several speakers said self-driving vehicles are not ready for public use, citing their inability to operate in snow and other technical challenges.

"Self-driving robot cars simply aren't ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention," Consumer Watchdog privacy project director John Simpson said at the hearing Friday.

Joan Claybrook, consumer advocate and NHTSA’s administrator under President Jimmy Carter, blasted the agency for its recent pursuit of voluntary agreements aimed at improving safety, rather than writing regulations.

“All of this undermines the likelihood of real safety on the highway,” she said. “This agency should take a step back and understand what it’s really doing here.”

One commentator suggested that states should give self-driving cars "graduated driver licenses" before allowing them on the road. Another warned autonomous vehicles could be used as drone-style weapons.

In December, California proposed state regulations that would require all autonomous cars to have a steering wheel and throttle and brake pedals when operating on state roads. A licensed driver would need to be in the driver's seat ready to take over in the event something went wrong.

Google opposes California's proposal and has called on Congress to approve new legal authority for NHTSA to allow fully autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads.

NHTSA plans another public meeting at Stanford University on April 27 on its autonomous vehicle guidance.

Rosekind says the agency’s guidance on safe deployment of self-driving cars will identify the “gaps” that need to be addressed in the future. The findings could stand on their own, be modified through public input or lead to regulations down the road.

“None of that has been determined yet,” Rosekind said. “We could come up with a guidance document and still start a regulatory process.”

Ryan Been of Automotive News and Reuters contributed to this report.

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