Ford’s Driverless-Car Path Will Run Through Washington

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Washington — Ford Motor Co.’s ambitious declaration that it will have a fully driverless car by 2021 will require big changes in federal and state laws to clear the way.

Company executives said Tuesday they plan in the next five years to build fully autonomous cars — without a steering wheel or brake or accelerator pedals — for use in ride-hailing or ride-sharing services. In doing so, Ford goes well beyond driver-assist systems like Tesla’s Autopilot and GM’s Super Cruise that require drivers to take control in emergency situations.

But current federal regulations never contemplated that self-driving cars would be on the road anytime soon. On Tuesday, Ford lobbyists wasted no time in making phone calls and sending emails to key lawmakers and regulators in Washington, laying out its plans in an effort to win wide latitude for driverless vehicles.

“This space is still developing from a legislative and regulatory perspective,” Christin Baker, a Washington spokeswoman for Ford, said in an email Wednesday to The Detroit News. “As we do with most major announcements, we shared information about yesterday’s news with key stakeholders in government — and we will continue to do so going forward.”

Federal regulators were expected to unveil regulations for testing fully automated cars in July, but the rules became embroiled in debate after the first fatal crash involving a car driving in semi-autonomous mode. Regulations aren’t expected until September.

The crash of the 2015 Tesla Model S occurred when a semi-trailer turned left in front of the car that was in Autopilot driver-assist mode on May 7. Florida police said the roof of the Tesla struck the underside of the trailer and the car passed beneath. The driver, Joshua Brown of Ohio, was dead at the scene.

Consumer groups seized upon the incident as evidence that self-driving cars are being rushed to the market.

John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog group, said in a telephone interview Wednesday he is not sure if Ford can adequately test autonomous vehicles within its five-year time line.

“In this day and age, five years can be a long time, but you still need to prove these things are safe,” Simpson said. “If the ultimate goal is to be steering wheel- and pedal-free, they’re probably still going to have a driver, at least during testing.”

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said Ford’s proposal to develop a fully self-driving car in five years is very ambitious.

“Autonomous vehicle technology represents a sea change for the industry, an evolution that is both exciting and a bit frightening for established automakers,” he said. “ Each manufacturer is jockeying for position in a race that remains highly speculative regarding the timing, implantation and regulation of this technology.”

He said Ford’s plan to use self-driving cars in ride-sharing fleets initially “is another sign that the first application of self-driving technology will be under highly controlled conditions in a specific area, such as college campuses or urban environments.”

Brauer doesn’t expect to see privately owned, fully autonomous cars capable of operating anywhere for at least seven to 10 years.

The federal government has not tipped its hand on upcoming rules for autonomous cars. But in a speech last month, the nation’s top highway safety official said the fatal accident had not dimmed the promise of potential safety benefits.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind said “no one incident will derail the Department of Transportation and NHTSA from its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new lifesaving technologies.”

NHTSA said in a report released in March that currently there are few barriers that would prevent automated vehicles from complying with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. But the agency added the caveat that designs without controls for human drivers, such as steering wheels or brake pedals – like the cars being proposed now by Ford – could be problematic.

The automotive industry is trying to put its imprint on the upcoming regulations. Ford is a founding member of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets lobbying group in Washington, which was formed to push regulators to allow testing for fully self-driving cars on behalf of Volvo, Google, Uber, Lyft and Ford.

Former National Highway Transportation Safety Administration chief David Strickland, who is leading the coalition’s lobbying effort in Washington, said Wednesday the group is “working collaboratively with policymakers at all levels to develop the appropriate policies, guidelines and regulations to bring self-driving vehicles to U.S. roads safely and swiftly.

“The coalition believes the best path for this innovation is to have one clear national framework and regulatory certainty,” Strickland said in a statement to The Detroit News.

The agency is facing pressure to craft national standards for autonomous vehicles because car and tech companies like Ford and Google are moving forward with testing self-driving autos. Additionally, states like Michigan and California are beginning to craft their own regulations.

Sweeping legislation was introduced in May in the state Senate that aims to make Michigan the nation’s leader in autonomous vehicle testing. It would allow cars with no driver to operate on Michigan roads. No action on the legislation is expected until at least September.

California has taken the opposite tack with a proposal that would require a licensed driver — and a steering wheel — to be in the car at all times.

Baker, the Ford spokeswoman in Washington, said the Dearborn company will be at the forefront of the push to develop national standards for self-driving autos.

“It’s important to be engaged with policymakers as they shape the policy for this new technology,” she said. “Our key policy priority is to establish a national framework, which Ford has communicated in testimony before NHTSA — and shared on Capitol Hill and with other government officials.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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