Carmakers and tech companies working on self-driving cars are pushing back against the Obama administration’s request to share data and safety specifications with the federal government. But they are expressing hope that President-elect Donald Trump will continue the current administration’s approach to regulating self-driving cars, which has so far avoided making any concrete rules or mandates.
“Extrapolating President-elect Trump’s posture on regulations, he’s clearly looking to having a much lighter regulatory environment,” said David Strickland, a lawyer and former federal administrator who now heads a lobbying group formed by Uber, Google, Volvo, Ford, and Lyft. He added that the Obama administration’s “less-than-regulatory approach hopefully provides some foundation that the next team could take up.”
Strickland acknowledged that the Obama administration’s effort to impose some structure and coherence to self-driving cars has been relatively hands-off already. The president and his appointees have said they are hoping to avoid a “patchwork” of regulations from state to state, but also don’t desire to stifle innovation through onerous regulations.
“This is voluntary guidance: you can choose to follow it or you can choose not to follow it,” Strickland said of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recently released guidelines. “It does not have the force of law. But it does give a template in dealing with uncertainty for folks in this environment that are investing significant sums of money, frankly, to help bring to market technology that could have huge impacts for vehicle safety.”
Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hosted its first public comment meeting on the rulebook it released in September. And in the coming weeks, letters will start to go out to companies like Google, Uber, Ford, and others that have already deployed self-driving cars, asking them to share data on cybersecurity, safety, and ethical issues. NHTSA says it plans to post those letters publicly.
These requests are strictly voluntary, and even so, Strickland says they raise concerns among the companies he represents. He said automakers and tech companies want more clarity on the “interplay” between the disclosures and possible enforcement actions from the government. In other words, the self-driving car industry wants assurances from the government that the information it provides won’t come back to bite it in the ass.
“There has to be a balancing test between openly sharing [intellectual property], proprietary data, and confidential business information versus a more narrow notion of making sure the system deals with commonality cases in a way that’s thoughtful,” Strickland said.
NHTSA’s response to these concerns has been that the agency has been balancing these needs for decades. “We absolutely do hope to have transparency,” Mark Rosekind, the head of NHTSA, said during a Congressional hearing last week. “NHTSA for a long time has great experience in protecting confidential business information.”
But in a few weeks, Rosekind will be replaced by a Trump appointee, as will his boss, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. And if those individuals are free market-embracing, anti-regulation Republicans, as many expect them to be, it’s hard to see how this process will change much.
Transportation experts are also scratching their heads over Trump. What are his views on Google’s self-driving cars? Or Uber’s? Does he believe they will save lives or jeopardize them? Are they the future of transportation or just a passing fad? And after running one of the most non-traditional, divisive campaigns in history, many are concerned that Trump will endanger the US’s position at the forefront of innovation in transportation.
“Whether we do this or not in the US, the technology will continue to be developed in Europe, tested [and] deployed in Singapore, Qatar, etc,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Vehicular Information Technology Collaborative Research Lab. “Since this technology can revolutionize transportation, it is imperative that the US maintain its edge.”
Still, there is a fear that Trump, who constantly shifts positions on issues and is known to have an incredibly short attention span, may not share his predecessor’s attitude about the importance of self-driving cars, and the federal government’s role in ensuring a coherent regulatory system across the country.
“What the policy of the Trump administration will be, I really don’t know,” Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, told The Verge in a recent interview. “We will have to see. We will continue with our development and we will continue the dialog, but we very much support a federal approach. All of us.”
Additional reporting by Jordan Golson.