Driverless-car makers worry that California’s proposed rules will slow their progress
The U.S. Department of Transportation released long-awaited guidelines Tuesday for the testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles.
California’s proposed rules for self-driving vehicles got another road test Wednesday, as vehicle makers and industry groups expressed concern at a public workshop that the Department of Motor Vehicles’ regulations could slow development of the technology and conflict with more flexible federal guidelines.
Recent revisions to the proposed rules, which were released late last month, include a requirement that companies “self-certify” that their vehicles meet both federal vehicle safety standards and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidelines for autonomous vehicles.
Manufacturers must also obtain an ordinance or resolution from local authorities that specify the roadways, speeds and other conditions that their vehicles are designed to operate in to ensure that communities have input on where testing occurs, the DMV said in a notice issued in September.
DMV officials who attended the workshop in Sacramento heard from technology, legal and transportation experts.
“I was pleased to see that the DMV panel acknowledges that the draft regulations aren’t perfect,” said Katie Thomson, chair of law firm Morrison & Foerster’s transportation industry group and former general counsel of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“They need to be very precise as to what they’re regulating, why they’re regulating it and how the regulations as proposed or finalized would actually achieve their intended objective,” she said.
Though representatives from companies such as Ford Motor Co. and Google said the proposed rules were an improvement over the first set of draft regulations released in December, several expressed concern about potential overlap with federal laws.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA issued federal guidelines on the testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles. While short on specifics, those included a “15-point safety assessment” letter that manufacturers and other autonomous vehicle technology organizations will be asked to submit to show how their systems address issues such as vehicle cybersecurity and data collection and storage.
The policy also had a suggested state policy that established the federal government’s responsibility for regulating the driving hardware and software, while leaving states to regulate licensing and registration of the vehicles, as well as liability and insurance policies.
The DMV said its revised draft regulations were influenced by these federal guidelines, as well as comments from previous public hearings on the first set of proposed rules.
Several automakers said the DMV draft regulations appear to make the voluntary NHTSA guidelines mandatory. The revised DMV proposal states that manufacturers who want to test and deploy autonomous vehicles on public roads must provide a copy of their 15-point safety assessment letter for NHTSA to the state agency.
“Mandating compliance is completely counter to NHTSA’s objective,” said David Strickland, counsel and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an advocacy group established by Ford, Google and others.
He added that it would also create “unnecessary regulatory confusion.”
As of Oct. 11, 18 companies including Google, Tesla Motors Inc. and Ford had permits to test autonomous vehicles on California public streets.
Some companies also opposed the proposed requirement that manufacturers must submit at least one year of data on “unplanned disengagements,” or instances in which a human driver had to take over control of the car, to the DMV before deploying their vehicles.
Those companies said during the hearing and in prepared statements that a year was an arbitrary timeframe and that similar data were not required from non-autonomous vehicles.
“Focusing only on the disengagements and collisions ignores the safety benefits that autonomous vehicles can provide,” Strickland said during his testimony Wednesday.
Ron Medford, director of safety at Google’s self-driving car project, suggested that the DMV require companies simply to alert municipalities of their testing plans, making it “more of a notice process than an approval process.”
Forcing companies to get an ordinance from each local authority was “unworkable,” he said, and would create unnecessary layers of government bureaucracy.
During her testimony, Carmen Balber, executive director of Santa Monica’s Consumer Watchdog, said safety was not being adequately addressed with NHTSA’s 15-point safety assessment plan, saying it had “no substance.”
“I think the key here is that they are completely unenforceable,” she said.
Balber said there has been no larger discussion of ethics, such as what choices manufacturers program into the car to help it decide whether it should kill a pedestrian in favor of saving the person inside the vehicle, or vice versa.
However, Balber said the organization supported the proposed California rules that a vehicle cannot be advertised as autonomous, such as using terms like “autopilot” and “self-driving,” if it does not meet the state’s definition of an autonomous vehicle.
She said this kind of rule would have prevented Tesla from calling its driving assistance feature “Autopilot.”
There is still a long road ahead before the state finalizes any regulations. The DMV said it expects to start its formal rule-making process in the next few months, which will include a 45-day public comment period and a public hearing process.
In the meantime, most automakers say it’ll be at least three to five years before they start selling fully-autonomous cars, though ride-hailing firm Uber Technologies Inc. has already deployed fleets of self-driving Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh.
“I think you’re seeing baby steps,” said Vijay Rakesh, senior analyst at Mizuho Securities USA. “With the industry moving forward, it makes sense that you’re seeing state regulators start to move in and provide a framework. It’s a process.”
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