DOT Doesn’t Try to Provide All The Answers in Driverless Cars Guidance

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QUESTIONS FOR OTHERS TO ANSWER: The driverless car guidance DOT released Tuesday leaves a lot of room for Congress, states and automakers to shape the direction of a technology that ultimately is meant to make human drivers obsolete. The 112-page document keeps existing authorities in place and tries to avoid holding back innovation, our Tanya Snyder reports for Pros.

Who does what: That leaves several issues — like licensing and liability for crashes — to the states, at least for now. However, the administration may ask Congress to approve some new oversight powers for DOT to approve vehicle designs before they come to market, give cease-and-desist orders in cases of imminent danger or require software changes for vehicles already on the road.

Congressional oversight: In the meantime, lawmakers seem to want to pore over the details and figure out how they fit in. “I think our role is oversight,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune told reporters Tuesday. “We just want to make sure that they strike the right balance between safety and innovation. And I think that as we learn more about it, Congress' role in terms of that oversight function — we'll figure out a little bit more what that role is and how we can engage in the process.”

Not a test subject: Jackie Gillan, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement Tuesday that the guidelines “must be considered a first step” and are no replacement for federal safety standards. “The DOT must ensure that the American public is not used to ‘beta test’ these new technologies,” Gillan said. She cited the Takata airbag recall and Volkswagen emissions scandal as examples of “how the industry easily conceals problems from both the public and the government,” and encouraged lawmakers to give NHTSA more power to regulate driverless vehicles.

Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, had a similar reaction Tuesday, saying in a statement that DOT “must not shy away from assuring public safety with minimum federal vehicle safety standards.”

Don’t hold us back: The auto industry, meanwhile, warned against policies that would hold up automakers from rolling out semi-automated or fully automated technologies. “Establishing premature certification requirements, test procedures and performance criteria, dictating technology-specific approaches, or adopting a patchwork of ill-timed competing state rules would only inhibit vehicle innovation and limit these important life-saving safety improvements,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement.

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House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster: “The rapid pace of innovation in autonomous vehicle technology should not occur in a vacuum. There must be a consistent framework that helps guide the development, testing and delivery of autonomous vehicles to the marketplace without stifling innovation and the creativity of the free market. I look forward to more thoroughly reviewing NHTSA’s guidelines and working with stakeholders in both industry and government on this important issue.”

Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council: “This policy gives carmakers and states the green light to innovate while keeping safety at the forefront. Until cars are truly autonomous with 100 percent reliability, we are still our cars’ best safety feature. Today, NHTSA has provided a much-needed path forward; we hope innovative manufacturers will embrace the administration’s guidelines as a blueprint for saving lives and preventing injuries.”

John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director: “This isn’t the checkered flag to industry to irresponsibly develop robot cars that we had feared. 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.”

David Strickland, former NHTSA administrator, now general counsel for Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets: “We support guidance that provides for the standardization of self-driving policies across all 50 states, incentivizes innovation, supports rapid testing and deployment in the real world. State and local governments also have complementary responsibilities and should work with the federal government to achieve and maintain our status as world leaders in innovation.”

John Bozzella, president and CEO of Global Automakers: “Global Automakers and its members remain committed to working with federal, state, and local governments to ensure there is a flexible, consistent framework for automated vehicle technologies so consumers can fully realize the benefits as quickly as possible. We also encourage the DOT to move quickly to issue its proposed rule for vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which is an important building block toward automated vehicles.”

Joe Okpaku, Lyft’s vice president of government relations: “Very soon, autonomous vehicles will improve the way we live and travel. As regulators begin to focus on this exciting technology, Lyft believes that safety must be of paramount importance. Flexibility and innovation must also be preserved as this entirely new form of transportation comes to market. Much work remains ahead, but NHTSA's guidelines are a step in the right direction.”

Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports: “Consumers need more than just guidelines. This new policy comes with a lot of bark, but not enough bite. While these technologies have the potential to save lives, there must be strong federal standards to protect all drivers. We can’t just leave it to the states to do the hard work of deciding whether to let a self-driving car on public roads.”

Marc Scribner, research fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute: “Highway safety and access to qualified test drivers is crucial. But NHTSA failed to include a test driver license reciprocity provision in their model policy recommendations. … Second, to prevent unnecessary cost and delay, Congress must reject any attempts to replace or augment NHTSA's traditional self-certification process with pre-market approval authority. … Finally, Congress must provide aggressive oversight over NHTSA's existing regulatory mechanisms, namely letters of interpretation and exemptions.”

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