Carmakers Want ‘Flexibility’ In Self-Driving Car Rules

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Washington — Carmakers are pushing for “flexibility” and the ability to protect proprietary information in self-driving car testing as federal regulators move to implement new guidelines.

The current proposal from the outgoing Obama administration calls for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on testing and safety of autonomous cars to federal regulators before the cars are sold to the public. Industry groups were given until Tuesday to submit comments to the agency on the proposed rules.

In comments submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Jeffrey Boyer, General Motors Co.’s vice president for global vehicle safety, said the automaker supports the goal of demonstrating safety “within a flexible approach” that allows for rapid evolution.

“GM believes this flexibility can be maintained in a manner that is safe and that advances public trust and support of (highly autonomous vehicle) development,” Boyer said, noting that self-driving car testing is likely to occur in stages.

The Transportation Department’s proposed self-driving rules focus on a set of 15 guidelines for automakers and technology companies, including data recording and sharing; privacy; how drivers interact with cars; and consumer education and training. Before self-driving cars are allowed 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.

Boyer raised concern that states would seek to make NHTSA’s voluntary reporting requirements for self-driving cars mandatory.

"We disagree with state-level pre-approval of vehicle safety performance because this will invite conflicts between NHTSA’s role and the states’ roles,” he said.

Tom Stricker, vice president of product regulatory affairs for Toyota Motor North America Inc., cautioned that proprietary information must be kept confidential in order to protect the company’s intellectual property.

Libertarian leaning groups, meanwhile, pushed NHTSA to defer to federal and state privacy regulators like the Federal Trade Commission on data questions that will inevitably arise during testing.

“While there is merit in an expert agency offering guidance to suggest how general privacy regulations might apply to situations within its purview, there is little benefit in NHTSA itself drafting specific privacy regulations or supplanting expert agencies in enforcing privacy rules,” the R Street Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute and TechFreedom urged NHTSA in a joint submission.

Consumer groups chided NHTSA for its decision to make complying with the proposed self-driving guidelines a voluntary choice for automakers and accused the agency of rushing autonomous vehicles to the market.

“Consumer Watchdog is deeply concerned that this unjustified rush to deploy self-driving technology threatens the safety of the nation’s highways,” Consumer Watchdog Founder Harvey Rosenfield and Privacy Project Director John Simpson wrote.

“NHTSA’s policy merely sets forth a laundry list of policy concerns and aspirations,” Rosenfield and Simpson continued. “In essence, NHTSA is asking manufacturers to drop the agency a letter outlining how they have dealt with 15 issues as part of a so-called ‘safety assessment.’ Apparently all it takes to deploy a fully automated robot car is a 47-cent postage stamp.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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