Under current US safety rules, a motor vehicle must have traditional controls, like a steering wheel, mirrors, and foot pedals, before it is allowed to operate on public roads. But that could all change under a new plan released on Thursday by the Department of Transportation that’s intended to open the floodgates for fully driverless cars.
The department, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “intends to reconsider the necessity and appropriateness of its current safety standards” as applied to autonomous vehicles, the 80-page document reads. In particular, regulators say they will look to change those safety standards “to accommodate automated vehicle technologies and the possibility of setting exceptions to certain standards — that are relevant only when human drivers are present.”
Changing these rules would pave the way for companies like Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors to release hundreds of thousands of fully automated vehicles on public roads. GM announced this week its plan to join forces with Honda to produce a purpose-built autonomous vehicle without traditional controls.
“Automated Vehicles 3.0” is the third iteration of the federal government’s voluntary guidelines on the development and safe deployment of automated vehicle technology. And it puts a fine point on the pro-business, laissez-faire approach to self-driving cars that the federal government has been espousing for several years now.
Autonomous vehicles “could potentially save thousands of lives,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at an event in Washington, DC on Thursday. She cited the recently released annual motor vehicle fatality report, which found that over 37,000 people died in car crashes in 2017.
Automakers must currently meet nearly 75 auto safety standards, many of which were written with the assumption that a licensed driver will be in control of the vehicle. In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act requiring all automobiles to comply with certain safety standards. The first one was adopted in 1967, though its requirements have been periodically updated and made more stringent over the years.
The proposal to remove impediments to autonomous vehicles comes at a time of skepticism around the technology. In March, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian while the backup safety driver was streaming a video on her phone, police said. Uber suspended testing in the aftermath, and some safety advocates said the crash showed the system was not yet safe enough to be tested on public roads.
Safety advocates decried the guidelines, arguing they place too much power and influence in the hands of the tech and auto industries. “Despite deaths, injuries, and crashes involving a variety of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicle technology across the country, DOT continues to insist that eliminating regulation is the way to achieve safety,” the Center for Auto Safety said in a statement.
Chao addressed this skepticism in her remarks. “While the technology holds promise, it has not yet won public acceptance,” she said. “Companies need to step up and address the public’s concerns about safety. Because without public acceptance, the full potential of these technologies may never be realized. Consumer acceptance will be the constraint to the growth of this technology.”
That said, she also repeated the “regulations hinder innovation” mantra of the Trump administration. “The department’s approach to new technology is technology neutral,” Chao said. “This is not a top-down command and control. This department is not in the habit of picking winners and losers.”
Chao has been repeating some version of this comment at auto shows and other public appearances since she was appointed as Trump’s transportation secretary in 2017. And in many respects, it’s not much of a departure from the position of her predecessor under the Obama administration. The DOT’s first policy guidance on autonomous vehicles, released in 2016, was also entirely voluntary, outlining a 15-point “safety assessment” that manufacturers were encouraged to meet.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to mull over legislation that could open the door even wider for more self-driving cars to hit the road. A bill in the Senate is stalled, though, after several Democratic senators put it on hold, citing safety concerns. The most recent effort to attach the bill to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration was defeated.
There were a couple of other new elements in the AV 3.0 document. The DOT says it will no longer recognize the designation of 10 autonomous vehicle proving grounds that were announced on the last day of the Obama administration. The sites were named by Congress to be eligible for $60 million in grants “to fund demonstration projects that test the feasibility and safety” of self-driving vehicles. But “given the rapid increase in automated vehicle testing activities in many locations, there is no need for U.S. DOT to favor particular locations,” the report says.
Chao also announced that the DOT will launch a study of the workforce impacts of automated vehicles with the Labor, Commerce, and the Health and Human Services departments. A former secretary of labor under George W. Bush’s presidency, Chao said the study is intended to help employers and workers prepare for a future in which autonomous technology is dominant.