Weekly Brief: Regulation not a Bust but a Boon for Driverless Tech

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is sick and tired of waiting for federal self-driving car regulations.

In a scathing letter to its sister agency, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the board called out the administration last week for its repeated failure to enact rules, regulations, frameworks or even basic recommendations that would benefit both the AV industry and the general public’s safety. NTSB’s beef is twofold.

First, it’s angry that a lack of federal standards and assessment protocols for AV tech has forced states to create their own patchwork of laws and requirements. These rules are substantial in some states, such as California, and minimal or nonexistent in others, as is the case in Arizona. The latter is important because Arizona is where Waymo has launched the first robo-taxi service in America. It’s also where an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018, an accident that NTSB investigated at length and determined that much of the fault lay with Uber’s reckless approach to AV tech. Yet, the NHTSA still doesn’t mandate any vehicle testing data from AV developers, nor does it require a thorough application and review process before granting testing permits.

The second part of NTSB’s frustration comes down to one name: Tesla. NTSB is upset that Tesla has been able to continue advertising its Autopilot technology as “full self-driving” even though, in the fine print of the manual not to mention behind closed doors with state and federal regulators, the carmaker readily admits that Autopilot is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill Level 2 driving assistant. To date, this discrepancy has led to three fatal accidents in the US.

Driver monitoring

After investigating the first of these accidents in 2016, NTSB recommended that NHTSA require manufacturers of Level 2 systems to incorporate safeguards that ensure drivers use the technology as intended. Some manufacturers, like Cadillac with its SuperCruise system, offer attention tracking technology that use infrared emitters and a camera on the steering wheel to track driver alertness and head and hand position. Others, like Tesla, do not. NTSB thinks that carmakers shouldn’t have a choice and said as much to NHTSA back in 2016.

NHTSA’s response was classic NHTSA: “The agency has no current plans to develop a specific method.” Two more fatal deaths resulted. NTSB thinks that’s unacceptable, especially in light of the fact that Tesla is now beta testing full-self-driving features on public roads with untrained Tesla drivers. If this isn’t a dramatic call to action, what will ever be?

Back in December 2020 the NHTSA requested public response to what its role should be in creating a safety framework for self-driving cars. Last week’s letter is NTSB’s response, which boils down to this: stop seeking guidance and taking a passive response to your job, grow a spine and create a robust “safety foundation” that will guide this industry forward and protect the public in the process.

How will the NHTSA respond? If I had to hazard a guess, this letter won’t fall on deaf ears the way it would have under the Trump administration. The DOT under Elaine Chao was borderline derelict and did little more than pander to industry lobbying, which, in the case of self-driving cars, meant zero regulations. The Trump administration argued that regulations would hamper the self-driving-car revolution but failed to see that providing regulations, frameworks and foundations would have been more of a boon than a hindrance.

The industry needs direction and clarity, even if it comes with some additional paperwork. Audi’s A8 is a perfect example. For three years the carmaker tried to bring the world’s first Level 3 autonomous vehicle to market but, ultimately, abandoned the milestone in large part because it wasn’t clear how liability would work if an accident happened. Would Audi be to blame? The technology? The driver? Both? These are complex, controversial questions but it’s time for the federal government to step up and take a stand. Let’s hope the Biden DOT is up for the job.

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