Washington — Auto companies are preparing for a future in which cars drive themselves — and federal regulators have to make sure they’re safe before they ever hit the road.
Proposed guidance released by the U.S. Department of Transportation last month calls for automakers to meet 15 guidelines before they can put self-driving cars on public roads. The pre-checks are a sharp departure from the federal government’s typical posture of largely waiting for automakers to self-report problems before recalls are issued.
Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford said the new framework for self-driving cars would be a sea change for the auto industry, but he expressed confidence that his company and other manufacturers would be able to comply with the more stringent guidelines. And he said the technology could have far-ranging benefits for society beyond safety.
“This is a whole new area for us,” Ford said after discussing the potential benefits of self-driving cars during a speech in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “And there are lots of changes we’re going to have make along the way, course adjustments, new technology coming in … ethics.”
“There are lot of moving pieces here,” Ford continued. “I like where we’re positioned. I like our technology, where it’s developed. But we’re going to also have to have lots of partners as we go forward.”
The proposed framework calls for automakers and technology companies who are working to develop autonomous cars to voluntary report on their testing and safety to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.
The guidance is meant to steer the development of the technology as states like Michigan and California create their own rules. It calls for states to allow federal regulators to create rules for self-driving autos, while state and local governments continue to regulate the drivers who are behind the wheel.
Automakers would be required to report to the federal government how the cars were tested, how the systems work and what happens if they fail.
Other areas in the 15-point assessment include: data recording and sharing; privacy; how drivers interact with cars; and consumer education and training.
Ford has said it will have a fully driverless car by 2021. The company’s executive chairman said it will be helpful to have national standards for self-driving as it pushes to meet the goal. He predicted that the proposed pre-reporting guidelines will not be a deterrent for auto companies who are striving to develop self-driving cars.
“This is a brand new world for us,” Ford said. “We need to stay in very close contact with NHTSA, and with frankly with universities and with technology companies because there are all sorts of issues that go along with autonomous driving.
“To have one federal standard, I think it’s really important, because it makes our life as a manufacturer much easier and we can move much quicker than if we’re trying to meet lots of different standards,” he added.
Consumer groups have raised questions about the safety of self-driving autos after a fatal accident last summer involving a Tesla car being operated in “Autopilot” mode. They are encouraged by the oversight proposed by the federal government.
“This isn’t the checkered flag to industry to irresponsibly develop robot cars that we had feared,” John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, said in a statement. “It’s not a secret, cozy process with the manufacturers, but includes a real commitment to transparency and public involvement. The administration clearly heard the concerns raised by safety advocates and has addressed many of them.”
Auto companies have signaled they are willing to voluntarily comply with the proposed federal guidance.
“General Motors supports DOT’s and NHTSA’s efforts to speed deployment of autonomous vehicles as a technology that has the potential to dramatically improve safety on our roads and highways and expand mobility options,” General Motors Co. said in a statement to The Detroit News. “We welcome the effort, will review the guidance and look forward to continuing the constructive dialogue on how to safely deploy [autonomous vehicles] as quickly as possible.”
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US LLC said it is deferring questions on the self-driving rules to the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers lobbying group, which represents 12 automakers including FCA, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.
The auto alliance said “guidance is the right action to take since the technology is developing quickly and collaboration between automakers and NHTSA is critical to avoid policies that become outdated and inadvertently limit progress in reducing the number of crashes and saving lives.”
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said federal regulators are trying to walk a tightrope between safety and innovation.
“The government doesn’t want to stifle autonomous innovation, particularly in an era when human-caused traffic fatalities are rising again. Yet one or two high-profile injuries or fatalities could set consumer acceptance of self-driving tech back years,” he said. “There’s no clear pathway here, but the DOT has provided basic coordinates for a rudimentary map.”
Bill Ford said the benefits of self-driving cars are too tantalizing to pass up.
“It’s early days yet, lots to be discussed with government, lots to be discussed with other technology provided, but the end game to me is really thrilling,” he said. “If we can really enable mobility for people today that don’t have mobility, you think of handicapped people, you think of elderly people. Drunk driving goes away… poverty can be alleviated if we can get people to where the work is. To me that’s incredibly compelling and all these other details along the way, we’ll work out …”