Industry weighs in on driverless car guidelines

Industry weighs in on driverless car guidelines
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A number of technology companies, automakers and outside groups have formally weighed in on the first-ever federal guidelines for driverless cars.

The public comments drew a mixed bag, with some automakers praising the creation of a flexible national framework and other companies expressing concern that there may still be barriers to innovation.

“We are concerned that the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy creates unnecessary barriers for companies looking to make self-driving vehicles accessible to the public in a safe, affordable, and convenient way,” wrote Anthony Levandowski, vice president of engineering at Uber, which has begun testing driverless cars with its passengers in Pittsburgh.

“Because, while [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] is right to prioritize safety as critical to building consumer trust, the hurdles proposed in the policy will likely slow the technology’s introduction to consumers without any corresponding safety benefits," he added.

The White House unveiled highly anticipated guidance in September that established a national framework for the operation and deployment of self-driving vehicles.

The crux of the guidelines is a 15-point safety assessment for automakers, which will eventually go through rulemaking. The guidance doesn’t tell developers how to achieve the standards, but asks companies to certify how they are meeting each category in the checklist.

The blueprint also seeks to clarify state and federal roles, as automakers and tech companies have worried that states would produce a messy patchwork of regulations without any overarching guidance.

The policy framework recommends that states be responsible for licensing human drivers, enforcing traffic laws and establishing requirements for autonomous vehicle testing on public roads, while the federal government should have primary control over the actual automation software and handling recalls.

Tuesday was the deadline for submitting public feedback on the guidelines, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to update annually.

Uber praised the safety agency for recognizing the value of autonomous vehicles and taking steps to accelerate their adoption. But the ride-hailing firm also lamented that the guidelines don’t account for the fact that self-driving cars may lead to more ridesharing and other new modes of vehicle operation.

“We believe it risks creating an uncertain environment for industry, creates unnecessary hurdles to bring this technology to market, does not materially improve vehicle or road safety, and stands to inhibit local innovation in determining which operational rules work best for what is still an emerging technology,” Uber said in its comments.

Meanwhile, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the R Street Institute and TechFreedom pinpointed a few areas in the guidelines that they say need to be crystallized. The coalition argued that the NHSTA is presenting contradicting signals about whether or not the safety assessment should be codified by the states.

“Vehicle automation systems have the potential to greatly improve the safety of our roads and improve the mobility of the disabled and elderly,” said Marc Scribner, a research fellow for CEI. “Government safety regulators must be careful, even at this early stage, to avoid conflicting requirements and policies that stifle innovation.”

The coalition urged the NHTSA to revise its recommendations around data, privacy and cybersecurity concerns so that useful data practices won’t be prohibited. The group also suggested that the agency leave out any elaborate discussions about the ethics behind computer-directed crashes.

The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents several companies involved in the emerging industry, said the guidance “accurately reflects the significant shift towards highly automated vehicles.”

But the group worried that states would still be encouraged to pursue overly restrictive laws.

“We support the development of a single national framework and urge NHTSA to discourage state and local policymakers from pursuing their own rules and contributing to an inconsistent patchwork of regulations,” the coalition wrote.

Jessica Rich, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, applauded the NHTSA for including “recommendations designed to ensure that privacy and security issues are considered throughout the vehicle lifecycle, particularly in the design phase.”

Two of the benchmarks in the 15-point safety assessment deal with privacy and cybersecurity concerns. Automakers are being asked to tell the government how they are safeguarding against vehicle hacking and how they are taking privacy considerations into account when designing driverless cars.

“Although there are significant challenges in transitioning to fully autonomous vehicles, NHTSA's thoughtful approach will help ease that transition and usher in a new era in transportation - a new era made possible by, among other things, innovative uses of information,” Rich wrote.