Consumer Advocates Wary as Regulators Near ‘Guidance’ on Driverless Cars

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SACRAMENTO—Consumer groups are pressing the Obama administration not to issue guidance on autonomous vehicles operations next week when federal transportation officials address an industry conference in San Francisco.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind are scheduled to speak Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, at the Automated Vehicles Symposium, an annual gathering of industry, policy makers and academics.

Foxx announced at a Detroit auto show in January that NHTSA would issue safety guidance on driverless vehicles within six months. John Simpson, an advocate with Consumer Watchdog said he and others suspect Foxx or Rosekind could soon release nonbinding recommendations—and they're not happy about it.

"Guidance isn't what's necessary," Simpson said. "We need to have real rulemaking that puts enforceable standards in place."

NHTSA representatives did not respond to a message seeking comment left with the press office Friday. It's unclear whether transportation regulators will delay the release of any guidance as the NHTSA investigates the May death of a Florida man who was driving a Tesla Model S with its autopilot system activated. The sedan collided with a tractor-trailer after the autopilot and driver failed to distinguish the truck crossing in front of the Tesla against a bright-sky background, the company said on its blog. The crash added to Tesla's growing legal trouble.

On Thursday, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, asked Tesla Motors Inc. CEO Elon Musk in a letter to have company representatives brief Senate staff on the crash and Tesla's findings by the end of the month.

"It is essential to use lessons learned from this incident to improve safety technologies, ensure they perform as advertised, and make certain that consumers are properly educated about their use," Thune wrote.

The Obama administration has embraced the development of autonomous vehicles. The president's budget proposal included $3.9 billion to advance related technology. NHTSA ruled in February that Google Inc. does not need a driver present under the autonomous-driving system it's developing.

Critics say the expected guidance policies have been developed "in the shadows."

"Instead of hastily crafted 'guidance,' with inadequate opportunity for the public to comment, NHTSA should gather the facts from Tesla crashes, as well as test data from other developers of autonomous technologies, and start a formal rulemaking process that results in enforceable rules covering autonomous technology," representatives of four consumer groups, including Consumer Watchdog, said in a July 13 letter to President Obama.

Seven states and Washington, D.C., have enacted autonomous vehicle legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona promoted the development of self-driving cars through a 2015 executive order.

In California, the Department of Motor Vehicles in December issued draft regulations that would require autonomous vehicles to include a steering wheel and foot pedals so a human driver could take over at any time. Google, which is developing a self-driving car without those very instruments, criticized the suggested rules. The DMV has held public hearings on its recommendations but has not announced a deadline for revealing formal regulations.

Contact Cheryl Miller at [email protected].

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