Safety advocates urge Congress to go slow on driverless cars

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(Bloomberg) -- Basic rules of the road are needed before lawmakers allow companies from Apple Inc. to Ford Motor Co. to dramatically expand testing of self-driving cars, safety and consumer advocates told lawmakers.

Automakers should be required to certify the safety of driverless vehicles before they can be tested on roads, and Congress should allow fewer vehicles to be tested on the roads than proposed under Republican-drafted legislation being considered by a House Energy and Commerce panel, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Democrat Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, said lawmakers should not be moving bills out of committee without input from the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is currently vacant awaiting a Trump administration nominee. Lawmakers did not hear from NHTSA at a hearing Tuesday.

"This is a big moment for us," Pallone said. "We need to be sure that we get this right and that safety is the first priority."

House lawmakers are debating the first federal legislation related to autonomous vehicles while counterparts in the Senate are working on their own measures to guide approval of those vehicles. Companies are racing to develop the technology that proponents say would make a major dent in the number of U.S. highway deaths each year.

There were more than 40,000 U.S. highway fatalities and 2 million injuries last year, Republican Robert Latta, chairman of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee, said in opening remarks at that panel’s hearing. "Our goal today is to enact the right policies to encourage self-driving technologies that can drastically reduce those numbers,” Latta said.

Patchwork of Rules

Latta said federal regulators should continue to oversee vehicle safety, not states, a key request of automakers and technology companies worried about the emerging patchwork of state-level self-driving car rules. He also signaled that the draft proposals will change.

The proposals under consideration by lawmakers have been largely praised by trade groups for automakers, which have called for the federal government to take the lead and regulate with a light touch. But safety and consumer advocates expressed concern about self-driving cars hitting the road in larger numbers without a framework to evaluate safety.

"We think that before automated vehicles are put on the roads, they should be required to go through a functional safety evaluation," Cathy Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in an interview before the hearing. "We think that’s a very basic precursor."

Chase said her group plans to submit written comments to the subcommittee.

On-Road Testing

The bills under consideration in Congress would allow for expansion in on-road testing of autonomous vehicles, which companies want so they can prove the safety of the vehicles and foster popular acceptance. At the same time, the federal measures would prohibit states from enacting a patchwork of different regulations governing the safety and performance of self-driving cars and trucks.

Automakers have pleaded for those two steps as they race alongside -- and sometimes against -- technology companies to commercialize these new car systems. Ford Motor Co. has said it plans to put self-driving cars on the road by 2021, pouring $1 billion into artificial intelligence startup Argo AI to bolster the effort. General Motors Co. has invested $500 million in Lyft Inc. and recently expanded its fleet of self-driving Bolt electric cars to 180 vehicles from 50 cars testing in metro Detroit, San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona.

On Monday, Apple announced it’s leasing a small fleet of cars from Hertz Global Holdings Inc. to test self-driving technology, while Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, reached an agreement for Avis Budget Group Inc. to manage its fleet.

NHTSA can currently allow automakers to field vehicles that don’t comply with the letter of federal auto-safety standards under certain limited circumstances. One exemption allows carmakers to field test new safety features while another allows for vehicles that don’t meet specific safety requirements but exceed the overall safety of conventional vehicles.

But both exemptions are capped at 2,500 vehicles a year, and the latter requires companies provide the agency with detailed analysis showing how a vehicle is more safe. The draft legislation would expand that cap to 100,000 vehicles.

The Obama administration released voluntary guidelines for safe autonomous vehicle deployment last September, which automakers have said gives NHTSA oversight of the technology while being flexible enough for development to continue.

Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the top-ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said she would need to see changes to the proposed bills before lending her support. She said she was resistant to the testing of large numbers of autonomous vehicles under waivers of U.S. safety rules -- a key request by the auto industry -- and said such exemptions should only be used as an interim measure until formal rules are written.

Years Away

While the first driving automation systems are already on the market with driverless braking and crash-avoidance technologies, fully automated driverless cars navigating highway traffic are still years away, automakers say.

“America is the true innovation leader in this field -- at least for now,” Mitch Bainwol, chief executive officer of the manufacturers’ alliance, whose members include Ford, GM and Toyota Motor Corp., said in written testimony. "It is in the national interest to protect that advantage.”

Alan Morrison, a law professor at George Washington University, testified that the proposed package would lead to "less safety and more preemption all in the name of technological advancement."

He said in prepared remarks that federal standards, even ones for vehicle testing, are "far preferable to having fifty states and the District of Columbia all deciding how safe is safe enough" to allow self-driving cars on the road. Morrison co-founded the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen alongside Ralph Nader in the 1970s.

"I think there’s a way forward but these bills are not it," he said.

--With assistance from Nathan Howard

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