Weekly Brief: Autonomous Industry Shelves Safety Issues in Push for Deregulation

Companies from across the self-driving car industry have sent a resounding message to the United States government last week.

They say it’s time to update the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, a body of 75 regulations that were conceived before self-driving cars came along and that now hinder their timely development and deployment. The Safety Standards include stipulations that all vehicles must have a steering wheel and brake pedal yet industry leaders, like Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise, believe that that regulation should be cut from the code when it pertains to self-driving cars. Others, like Lyft and Honda, contended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should create a separate vehicle classification for self-driving cars, with new rules and regulations that aren’t based on the assumption that a driver will be behind the wheel.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it should by now. NHTSA first started entertaining new federal motor vehicle safety standards for self-driving cars three years ago. It was also three years ago when US Congress latched onto self-driving cars as a rare example of bipartisan consensus. Nearly everyone in Congress supported the idea of a new law that would establish a federal framework for the safe testing and deployment of automated vehicles. The law would also remove regulatory barriers to expedite the process of getting self-driving cars onto public roads and would replace the mishmash of state regulations with straight-forward federal guidance. Safety advocates weren’t thrilled. They warned of potential dangers, unknowns and liabilities but it didn’t seem to matter.

Then a self-driving Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018 and bipartisan support for the new regulation vanished like sunlight in a hurricane. Fast forward to 2019 and there is still no new law in place, nor are there any new regulations from NHTSA. That’s why the various letters that NHTSA received from the self-driving industry last week were peppered with not-so-subtle reminders to hurry the heck up. Waymo exhorted NHTSA to move “promptly”, while Cruise argued that NHTSA has an “imperative” to act “with a sense of urgency so that the necessary regulatory evolution keeps pace with advancing technology”.

To be clear, their arguments aren’t falling on deaf ears. NHTSA requested these public comments from the companies and it says that it plans to start rewriting its Safety Standards in March 2020 with an eye on these very issues. Still, that process could take up to three years and, even then, it’s no sure bet when the new standards arrive that they will align with what the self-driving car industry would like to see.

Many safety advocates believe that’s a good thing. After all, what the industry sees as “barriers,” safety advocates view as key measures to keep the general public safe from technology that remains largely untested and not very well understood. “There is simply no demonstrable evidence that vehicles lacking manual controls can safely operate on (and off) America’s roads,” said one prominent safety advocate, The Center for Auto Safety, in its comments to NHTSA.

Almost all self-driving pilots underway today include human safety drivers behind the wheel – safety drivers who, we should point out, are called into action frequently. This is true even for Waymo, despite being the industry gold standard. Meanwhile self-driving start-ups continue to miss self-imposed deadlines for their deployments. Waymo claims it launched a full robo-taxi service last year, on deadline but it’s really still a cautious pilot and Waymo seems afraid to make it anything more than that. Cruise has pushed back its 2019 deadline for its robo-taxi fleet and has no new timeline in place. Likewise, Ford admitted this year that it “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” and that its self-imposed deadline for mass deployment of self-driving cars by 2021 was grossly overstated. It thus begs the question: why should federal regulators step on the gas to rewrite safety regulations when the industry is pumping the brakes on its own deployments?

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