Senators grill safety regulator over self-driving cars

Senators on Wednesday grilled the nation’s top transportation safety regulators over their efforts to approve rules for the growing self-driving car industry.

Despite the immense promise of automated vehicles (AVs), which the lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee acknowledged, the technology has been plagued by accidents during testing.

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) praised the new technology, which he said “has the ability to save thousands of lives” that would be lost in traffic accidents and provide “new found independence” for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who has introduced federal legislation on self-driving car safety, pressed regulators to show urgency over the issue.

A “public safety risk, in the absence of clear federal rules, or a federal statutory framework, to guide safe deployment and testing exists now and we need to close that gap as quickly as possible,” Peters said.

The hearing also highlighted divisions between regulators and the watchdog tasked with investigating transportation accidents.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt cited a report from his agency calling for a tougher review process before companies are allowed to test self-driving vehicles on the road.

Sumwalt said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which approved self-driving tests, was too lax and needed to force autonomous vehicle developers to prepare and submit a safety review.

“NHSTA currently has voluntary guidelines for AV developers to submit a test plan safety self-assessment to NHSTA which will presumably review it,” Sumwalt explained. “What we believe is that loophole needs to be closed. We feel that NHTSA needs to actually require AV manufactures to submit a safety self-assessment.”

An NTSB report, which will be released in full “in the coming weeks,” directly linked a fatal 2018 crash between an Uber automated test vehicle and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, to the NHTSA’s inadequate safety regulations.

Ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) also came down hard on the NHTSA, pressing its acting chief on whether the agency supports “establishing minimum safety standards.”

“We will establish safety standards when we determine that the technology is proven and that establishing a standard would be overall beneficial to public safety,” NHTSA acting administrator James Owens said.

“If we establish standards too quickly we run the risk of stymieing innovation. We want to step back, we want to let the innovation occur and competition occur.

Cantwell pushed back, noting that “this human interface and this technology needs some standards.”

Sumwalt added that only 16 out of 80 AV manufacturers have submitted voluntary self-assessments

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) slammed the NHTSA for failing to respond to a commonly known trick where Tesla users can make the car think their hands are on the steering wheel with water bottles or oranges, allowing auto-pilot to be activated.

“These videos are on YouTube right now so NHTSA must know what is happening as well,” Markey said. “Tell me what NHTSA is doing, what you’re telling Tesla, to make sure that the safety issues are fixed and that these cars don’t wind up killing people.”

“It is unfortunate when drivers misuse their vehicles and engage in unsafe behaviors,” Owens responded.

“So, what do you tell the Tesla to do in order to fix this defect?” Markey pressed.

“I’d be happy to follow up with you on the specifics of this case,” Owens said.

Some critics say Congress shares some of the blame for the lack of a regulatory framework for self-driving cars, as legislation to provide a guide for federal regulations has stalled.

Last Congress, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Self-Drive Act and the Senate Commerce Committee pushed forward the AV START Act. 

While the House passed the Self-Drive Act by voice vote in 2017, the Senate never took up the AV START Act due to objections over safety and security provisions in the bill by some Democrats.

Those committees restarted talks this summer on federal legislation for self-driving cars, The Hill reported at the time.

Wicker, Peters and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) have said they plan to push new legislation on the issue this term.

But with Congress tied up with spending deadlines and impeachment, it is unclear if that legislation could move this year.

Tags Ed Markey Gary Peters John Thune Maria Cantwell Roger Wicker

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