Feds Abandoning 10 Self-driving Test Sites, Sticking With Voluntary Regulation

With Honda and General Motors teaming up on a self-driving car and GM’s Super Cruise getting the green light from Consumer Reportsit’s already been a busy week for automotive autonomy — and it’s only getting bigger.

The U.S. Transportation Department plans to repudiate 10 locations previously outlined by the previous administration to serve as federally recognized proving grounds for self-driving vehicle tech. But don’t think for a second that this means the noose is tightening around the neck of autonomous testing. The Trump administration is preparing a new initiative that will lead to nationwide testing from just about anyone who can cobble together a vehicle with advanced driving aids. 

Established by the Obama administration in its very last days, the 10 sites were intended to be safe places for companies to test their hardware and collaborate on tech. Considering its timing, the move might also have been a partisan play to delay Trump’s promised deregulation of the automotive industry.

Under the Trump administration, the NHSTA has already managed to leave the door open for firms interested in testing on the open road. Its “Vision for Safety 2.0” clearly prioritizes development over-regulation. However, after a few high profile incidents, criticisms of the NHTSA’s approach to autonomous safety started to snowball. Naysayers claim this has effectively made the public’s welfare a voluntary concern for vehicle manufacturers and tech firms. Still, those in favor of its methodology will tell you the agency is simply doing what is necessary to supercharge development because autonomous vehicles are supposed to nullify traffic accidents someday.

Speaking at the Most Powerful Women Summit in California on Tuesday, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said that America is on the cusp of something revolutionary. “I have beseeched Silicon Valley and also the OEMs. This new technology is converging the traditional automakers and also silicon valley — all these high-tech companies — and they really need to work together,” she explained. “Because all the high-tech companies know technology and they have such an interesting future that they envision for our world. The older, traditional manufacturers know safety and they know what is required.

She also went on to say that the government is not the best purveyor of knowledge when it comes to highly technical programs. Nor should it tell people what kind of cars they should drive. Innovation, as far as Chao is concerned, cannot be stifled, as its an essential aspect of America’s national identity and likely the best way to ensure public safety in the long term. Ultimately, Chao believes that competitiveness and collaboration without top-down interference from the government will yield superior technologies at a faster rate.

However, she did admit that the journey would not be without pitfalls. “When we have autonomous vehicles, we are not removing all risks,” she said. “The risk is just moving from the human being to the software program.”

Those points were echoed on Thursday when she officially announced the federal government’s third set of guidelines for self-driving cars since Trump took office. It also appears that automakers will still have to voluntarily report information about their testing protocols and progress. The Department of Transportation is pushing development, not regulation.

The new guidelines focus on adapting terms like “driver” and “operator” for use on autonomous vehicles. Currently, federal regulations require a living, breathing person in the driver seat. The department feels that the rules need to “recognize that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may, in fact, include an automated system.” It is also considering axing rules that mandate the inclusion of components that wouldn’t be particularly useful for a self-driving vehicle or could stifle new tech (replacing side mirrors with cameras, for example).

“It will not be top-down command and control,” Chao said during the announcement. “This department is not in the business of picking winners and losers, because the government is not the best place to choose which technology will succeed and which technologies will fail.”

According to Bloomberg, the new AV program was intentionally supposed to mimic the administration’s drone initiative — which opens up the door for national testing but still requires individual program approval from the Federal Aviation Administration as companies duke it out. Swap the FAA for the DOT and you have the basic idea.

From Bloomberg:

The department first plans to solicit feedback on the issues posed by autonomous vehicles that should be addressed in the pilot projects, the people said. Project proposals will be solicited once those subjects are determined, they said.

The initiatives are part of the department’s third automated vehicle policy guidance, which for the first time goes beyond automated cars to include the federal agencies that oversee long-haul trucks, gas pipelines, highways and public transit systems.

The decision is likely to ruffle the feathers of some safety advocates but the Transportation Department didn’t ignore their wailing entirely. Chao said she had routinely asked companies to address the public’s “legitimate concerns about the safety, security and privacy of this new technology” and will continue doing so.

“Without public acceptance, the full potential of these technologies will never be realized,” she said. “Consumer acceptance will be the constraint to growth of this technology.”

a version of this article first appeared on thetruthaboutcars.com

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