Driverless-Car Rules Loosen: U.S. Regulator Stops Demanding Safety Assessments

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Go for it! In essence, that’s the Trump administration’s new directive on driverless-car development.

Under that directive, automakers and technology companies will be asked to voluntarily submit safety assessments to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but they don’t have to do it.

And states are being advised to use a light regulatory hand.

At a driverless-car test track in Ann Arbor, Mich., outside Detroit, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao unveiled a document titled “Vision for Safety 2.0.”

Her speech was strong on vision and light on regulation.

She painted a near-future of greater safety, fewer deaths, higher productivity and more time spent with loved ones as robots increasingly take over the tasks of driving and commuters are freed for other activities.

“More than 35,000 people perish every year in vehicle crashes,” she said — 94% of those through driver error. After years of decline, fatalities are growing, she said. “Automated driving systems hold the promise of significantly reducing these errors and saving tens of thousands of lives in the process.”

Chao was joined onstage by Mark Riccobono, president of the National Assn. of the Blind. Riccobono, who is blind, said fully autonomous vehicles offer “an unprecedented opportunity to bring equal access to people with disabilities.”

Although widespread use of driverless cars is at least several years away, automakers and technology companies are making rapid progress, and elements — such as automatic braking and adaptive cruise control — are already available on many new vehicles.

Not everyone was happy with Chao’s announcement. Some consumer groups, which already thought the Obama administration’s standards were too lax, criticized a further pullback from government regulation.

“This isn’t a vision for safety,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director. “It’s a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”

But driverless-vehicle proponents cheered Chao’s presentation. “This is great news. Over-regulating autonomous vehicles will slow down the adoption of a technology which will create millions of new high-paying jobs across the United States and make roads safer for all Americans,” said driverless industry consultant Grayson Brulte.

Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers lobby group, appeared at the Chao event and said, “The future is not something we should be afraid of or try to slow down.”

The new standards replace guidelines published by the Obama administration in September 2016. Automakers were asked to voluntarily submit reports on a 15-point “safety assessment.” They were also urged, but not required, to defer to federal rules on safety. Chao did not criticize those guidelines, but called them “Vision for Safety 1.0.”

That approach didn’t eliminate what critics call a patchwork of state-by-state regulations. California’s regulations, for example, are considered fairly strict. Florida, Michigan and Arizona barely regulate driverless cars at all.

The new “Vision for Safety” advises state officials to remain technology-neutral and not favor traditional automakers over technology companies; to remove regulatory barriers that keep driverless cars off the roads; and to fix the federal Transportation Department’s voluntary recommendations into law.

Chao said she supports new legislation working its way through Congress to support driverless-car development. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would let automakers each put up to 25,000 cars on the road even if some features don’t meet current safety standards. Over three years, the cap would rise.

The bill calls for safety assessments to be submitted to officials, but permission to test would not be required.

The Senate is considering a similar bill, and the chamber’s Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing Wednesday. The committee is to consider whether to exempt trucks from the law. Labor unions have expressed concerns that driverless technology could lead to job losses. Chao has expressed similar concerns in the past.

Transportation officials from both administrations consider driver-assist technology and autonomous cars to be essential safety features that could dramatically cut collisions, injuries and deaths.

The vast majority of traffic collisions are caused by human driver error, federal safety statistics show. Fatalities have been rising in recent years as cellphones and other distracting devices have become more popular.

In 2016, U.S. highway traffic deaths rose 6%, to about 40,000.

[email protected]

Twitter: @russ1mitchell

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