Safety groups hope for more robot car regs if Dems win
Washington — Safety advocates are hoping Democrats will push for a federal mandate to compel automakers to publicly release information about their self-driving car testing if they win one or both houses of Congress in next week’s election.
The Trump administration has adopted a voluntary approach to autonomous vehicle regulation, asking automakers and technology companies to self-report on their handling of 12 safety elements that federal regulators say should be involved in all self-driving car testing.
Critics say the self-driving assessments should be mandatory to ensure compliance from all automakers. They also say the paperwork already voluntarily submitted does little to reassure the driving public that vigorous testing is being done, an answer to polls showing increasing unease about self-driving cars.
The Trump administration has argued the federal government does not have a mechanism to force automakers to submit safety assessments before they put self-driving cars on the road. They argue that automakers should feel compelled by public opinion polls showing drivers are hesitant to embrace self-driving cars to reassure the public about their products.
John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group, said he hopes Democrats will take a much different tack if they are successful in next week's election.
"It seems to me the odds of a tougher bill being negotiated are higher if Democrats do take the House," he said. "This attitude of 'you can do whatever you want, we don't want to get in the way in the technology,' which seems to be the Republican approach right now, is much less likely to fly in Democratic-controlled Congress, even if it's only one house."
Republicans currently control 235 seats of the 435 seats in Congress, while Democrats occupy 193 of them and six seats are vacant. Democrats need to win at least 23 seats currently held by Republicans to win the House.
Simpson noted that the Republican-controlled House has already passed a bill that would allow carmakers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving cars each per year while giving the transportation department two years to develop a mandate that requires carmakers to submit safety assessments. A similar measure that the Senate is considering would allow automakers to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars each per year.
Under the Senate's proposed measure, automakers would be required to submit a safety evaluation of their self-driving cars within 90 days of the proposed measure’s enactment. The House measure says the voluntary safety assessments that NHTSA is soliciting from carmakers will be acceptable until then.
Simpson said neither chamber's bill goes as far as he would prefer toward requiring automakers to be transparent about their self-driving car testing. He acknowledged the bills may be altered in a conference if senators are able to pass their measure in the period after the election that is known as the lame duck period.
"There may be some pieces put in the AV Start potentially to satisfy some of the Democrats (who are currently opposed to the measure), which would be a step in the right direction," Simpson said.
The Trump administration has released self-driving guidelines that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on their handling of 12 safety elements that federal regulators say should be involved in all self-driving car testing. The recommendations were originally crafted by the Obama administration, and they have been updated by the Trump administration twice.
The voluntary reporting system has come under fire from safety advocates, who say reports that have been submitted so far — by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., the Google-affiliated Waymo, Nuro, a robotics company based in Mountain View, Calif. and Nvidia, a graphics processing unit maker that is developing artificial intelligence for self-driving cars — more closely resemble marketing brochures than stringent regulatory filings.
"They're really not serious assessments that allow readers to make any kind of meaningful conclusions," Simpson said. "If the industry wants to move forward, they've got to be transparent and share data they learn from incidents that occur during testing."
Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for auto safety, quality, and fuel economy, also said Congress should do more to force carmakers to cough up information about their self-driving car testing.
"The reality is that both chambers are looking at bills that require some level of reporting that looks similar to safety assessment letters, so we would expect any bill in the next Congress to do the same," said Levine, whose organization has filed a petition to NHTSA that calls for the agency to begin working to mandate the self-driving safety assessments.
"However, both bills create deals with the devil by failing to require safety before allowing these vehicles to hit the road — and by preempting access to the civil justice system for those harmed by defective robot cars," Levine continued. "We sincerely hope to see these flaws fixed in any future iteration of the bill."
Levine added: "NHTSA doesn't need to wait on Congress to require some basic safety information from these manufacturers immediately."
The Trump administration has disagreed that compelling automakers to release more information about their self-driving car testing would be the most effective way to increase consumer confidence in the nascent technology. Speaking at a technology conference in Washington in October, Deputy National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Heidi King said her agency's "research portfolio has supported the development of our current voluntary guidance approach during this time of rapid change, to prioritize safety while also enabling innovation."
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said it is difficult to predict what will happen with self-driving car regulation until the Senate passes its version of the bill, and the chambers conference in an attempt to merge the differing piece of legislation. She noted that the House passed its version of the self-driving bill unanimously in 2017.
"We have to see what's going to happen on the Senate side," she said. "If the Senate doesn't move it, we'll use what we passed before as a base (in the next Congress). We had more than 300 meetings to get it out of the House the last time. The House is committed to getting this through. We know to keep the country competitive, we have to be a forefront of technology."
A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who co-authored the Senate's self-driving bill, said the Bloomfield Township Democrat "would like any final version of the legislation to include mandatory safety assessments detailing how vehicles meet certain safety criteria.”