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White House backs voluntary rules for autonomous vehicles

UPDATED: 9/12/17 10:59 pm ET – corrected

Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story had an incorrect title for the revised federal policy on automated vehicles. 

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Trump administration unveiled streamlined self-driving vehicle guidelines at the University of Michigan’s autonomous testing operation Tuesday, eliminating requirements for automakers to seek regulatory approval before launching autonomous technology.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao delivered an overview of the revised federal  policy, titled “Automated Driving Systems 2.0: A Vision for Safety,” during the press event.

The policy suggests states defer safety or performance rules to federal regulators, and recommends that states instead focus on issues such as licensing and registration, liability and insurance.

“This advanced, updated guidance clarifies and incorporates many of the concerns we subsequently heard from stakeholders and users,” Chao said. “As the technology advances, and the department gathers new and more information, we will continue to refine and update this document.”

Chao said the department is already working on another version of the document, Vision 3.0, to be released next year.

The new policy aims to make department regulations “more nimble” in order to “match the pace of private sector innovation,” according to the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The new document, updated with technological developments, such as operating guidance for vehicles with Level 3 or above autonomous driving systems, revises “unnecessary” design elements from safety self-assessments, the department said in a statement.

The policy does not impose any new barriers or reporting requirements, and reduces suggested best practices for automakers testing autonomous technologies.

Chao said a voluntary approach was appropriate, and brushed aside a question on why the guidelines would not be backed by enforcement.

“They are not intended to,” Chao said. “This is the best way to proceed in a field that is changing so rapidly. This is not an enforcement document.”

Chao said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would exercise its power to recall automated vehicles if they are found to be unsafe.

A former acting administrator of the highway safety agency, David Friedman, criticized Chao’s guidelines.

“(The agency) needs to be empowered to protect consumers against new hazards that may emerge, and to ensure automated systems work as they’re supposed to without placing consumers at risk,” said Friedman, now director of cars and product policy for the consumer advocacy group Consumers Union.

In a statement, Consumers Union faulted the proposed guidelines for not requiring more information from automakers about autonomous vehicle systems, and excluding enhanced cruise control systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot.

Industry officials welcomed the Transportation Department’s approach, which is one step in a two-pronged effort, backed by the companies developing autonomous vehicles, to have self-driving vehicles regulated at the federal level instead of by individual states.

“It gives us the stability and reassurance that we can deploy autonomous vehicles throughout the country,” Kay Stepper, vice president for automated driving systems at Robert Bosch, said on Tuesday.

General Motors praised the revised policy for “clear, streamlined, and flexible guidance for the safe and responsible design, manufacture, and deployment of self-driving vehicles.”

Robbie Diamond, CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy:
“The on-time release of the FAVP 2.0 reemphasizes the commitment by DOT and NHTSA to quickly address and overcome the chances of a messy patchwork of state regulations.”

John Maddox, CEO of the American Center for Mobility:
“We fully support the new guidance which is extremely well thought out, clarifying, and in alignment with the collaborative approach at the American Center for Mobility. I believe that issuing guidance rather than specific regulation is most certainly the best approach, especially as the development of these technologies is rapidly evolving.”

Doug Davis, senior vice president of Intel’s Automated Driving Group:
“To get ready for our autonomous future, we need to prepare our roads, cities, towns, and, more importantly, tomorrow’s passengers. A policy framework that prioritizes safety, innovation and U.S. leadership will play a critical role. To this end, I applaud the leadership of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao for her focused work to revise the nation¹s Automated Vehicle Guidelines for the safe testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles.”

Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book:
“This new set of guidelines from NHSTA is clearly designed to encourage more innovation, more testing and, ultimately, the safe deployment of self-driving cars. Clear guidelines that encourage innovation is what the industry needs as it moves toward the ultimate goal of safer, more efficient personal transportation.”

Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book:
“This is what autonomous vehicle developers have been asking for. The DOT is clearly focused on safety, but at the same time, NHSTA’s guidelines should provide the flexibility developers want.”

Congress weighs in

The U.S. House approved legislation last week that would require automakers to comply with the safety assessment to get approval to sell self-driving cars that do not meet all current safety requirements.

The former regulations, a 116-page document issued by the Obama administration in September 2016, required automakers to voluntarily submit details of self-driving vehicle systems in a 15-point “safety assessment” and urged states to defer to the federal government on most vehicle regulations.

Chao also took a moment to acknowledge those in the South who took the brunt of hurricanes the last two weeks.

“I have mobilized the men and women of the Department of Transportation to help restore the transportation systems damaged by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey as well,” she said.

The newly released guidelines come nearly a week after the U.S. House of Representatives voted on a proposal to expedite the deployment of self-driving cars without human controls and ban states from putting the brakes on autonomous vehicles.

Last Wednesday, the House voted unanimously on a bill to clear legal obstacles that could discourage automakers and technology companies from putting self-driving cars into broader use.

The proposed SELF-DRIVE Act would permit as many as 100,000 autonomous test cars annually for companies working on autonomous vehicles.

The bipartisan bill requires automakers provide regulators with safety assessments of their systems, but does not require federal approval to put autonomous cars on the road.

Tuesday’s event also featured demonstrations of autonomous vehicle testing, for which MCity partners with more than 70 companies across sectors, including automakers, and top-tier suppliers, insurance companies, and internet service providers.

Navya displayed the Arma Shuttle, the completely autonomous buses slated to ferry students around the University of Michigan in late fall.

Editions of the vehicle will follow university roads with public access, scanning the road with a camera as well as lidar and radar technologies.

“Safety is a crucial thing to this vehicle,” an MCity spokesman said. “The vehicle is very cautious — some would say overly cautious.”

Chao said technology will determine the trend of federal spending, emphasizing the U.S. has a decentralized transportation system. She said the department would send out principals or legislative language sometime this fall, stressing more appealing or successful-seeming projects will be considered.

“There will be a competitive process in which those projects that have a greater innovation, more forward looking, will have a larger share of the federal dollars,” she said.

NHTSA representatives said would not comment on specific technologies mentioned in the policy, such as V2V technologies.

“The public spoke and the department listened,” Jack Danielson, acting deputy administrator of NHTSA, said, adding that the department is sending a signal with the new policy to both the states and to the industry about their dedication to evolving technologies.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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