AVs Don’t Need to Be Regulated Yet, Car Safety Chief Says

The US federal government doesn’t need to impose autonomous vehicle regulations yet and continues to take a voluntary approach to their safety, the Transportation Department’s ranking safety official says.

“A need to regulate has not yet been demonstrated with these nascent technologies,” because connected and autonomous vehicle technologies are still in testing or just emerging for commercial use, said Heidi King, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in a keynote speech at the Autonomous Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco last week.

King is President Trump’s nominee to lead NHTSA, the agency she has run for more than a year as deputy administrator. Her nomination was sent to the full Senate last month after contentious hearings, but she has not yet been confirmed.

Two consumer groups slammed King’s comments.

“Ms. King’s, and NHTSA’s, pronouncement that there is no need for regulations about what is potentially the most important development in the history of the automobile is a complete abdication of the federal government’s role in vehicle safety and shows that it will be corporations in control of who lives and who dies when it comes to self-driving cars,” the Center for Auto Safety’s executive director, Jason Levine, told The Connected Car by e-mail.

“There needs to be regulation right now around testing,” said John Simpson, director of the privacy and technology project at Consumer Watchdog.

Instead of imposing rules on AV testing, NHTSA offers voluntary guidelines to the companies doing it. The agency is encouraging the development of self-driving technology because of its potential to save lives, King said, citing the nearly 40,000 annual road fatalities in the US that overwhelmingly are caused by human error. It’s important for government and industry to test and deploy AV technology responsibly so the public will trust it and ultimately use it, she said.

The agency’s voluntary guidelines are compiled in “A Vision For Safety 2.0,” the latest version of a framework first released in September 2016. Version 3 is expected this summer.

Companies can demonstrate that they are taking safety seriously by submitting Voluntary Safety Self-Assessments (VSSAs) to the agency, King said. NHTSA provides a template for these.

So far, General Motors and Google-backed AV startup Waymo have filed assessments, and others should be finished soon, she said. The documents are indexed and publicly available at NHTSA’s website.

There are many possible steps between having entirely voluntary safety reporting and imposing specific regulations and standards, Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid told The Connected Car.

“We can’t just rush into doing regulations, just as we can’t rush into deploying the technology,” Abuelsamid said. Regulators don’t know enough yet, he said. For example, it’s impossible to set rules for how well sensors should be able to detect obstacles in the road, and how well cars should be able to avoid them, without detailed information about the performance of very new technologies. Not even California’s AV testing rules, which require companies to report details of accidents and disengagements, bring in enough meaningful data, he said.

But companies won’t disclose all the information that’s needed unless the government requires it, Abuelsamid said.

“Because of competitive pressures, they would be unlikely to voluntarily provide any data that’s actually useful to anybody,” he said.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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