The U.S.’s Updated Guidelines on Self-Driving Cars Worries Safety Advocates

The U.S. government issued updated guidelines on self-driving vehicle technologies on Tuesday, but safety advocates fear the lenient approach may create a safety hazard.

Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation, rolled out the guidelines, which aim to streamline the development of self-driving technology by relaxing federal rules.

Automakers welcomed the new guidelines, but some worry that the weakening of industry oversight may put drivers in danger.

The Transportation Department has removed the federal mandate that requires self-driving vehicles to be approved by the government before models can be allowed on roads. The process is now voluntary, a measure that Chao says will help get the benefits of self-driving technology on the road as soon as possible.

Although the process is voluntary, the guidelines recommend that automakers seek approval before sending vehicles on the road.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that more than 35,000 people are killed in car accidents each year, and 94% of those accidents are caused by human error.

“Safety must always be No. 1,” said Chao. “But we must take a look at how autonomous drive technology will augment safety.”

Consumer Reports and other safety advocates say more stringent oversight is required, and that a voluntary system is not sufficient.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, CEO and President of the National Safety Council, says the “DOT has yet to receive any Safety Assessments, even though vehicles are being tested in many states.”

Hersman adds that while the voluntary guidelines are designed to ensure that developers can move quickly with new technologies, “they serve public safety best if all players agree to comply with them.”

David Friedman of Consumers Union says, “This is a clear step backward for consumer safety that sends a troubling message about the Transportation Department’s priorities under the new administration.”

Chao’s announcement came on the same day the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that Tesla’s Autopilot system played a significant role in a crash last year that killed a passenger.

“On that same day, Secretary Chao indicated that the Department will go easy on automakers, and that it will expect them to do less to verify the safety of emerging automated vehicle systems,” Friedman added. “It’s an abdication of responsibility.”

Advocates for automakers are pleased with the new guidelines.

“This federal guidance is helpful in advancing road safety and safe testing, while also providing more clarity on the role of states,” said Gloria Bergquist, VP of communications and public affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “The guidance provides the right balance, allowing emerging innovations to thrive while government still keeps a watchful eye over new developments.”

The DOT’s announcement comes as Congress considers the SELF DRIVE Act, which would give the federal government control over the regulation of self-driving vehicles. Under the proposed law, states would have limited power over the regulation of autonomous vehicles.

Currently, laws regulating the use and testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads varies from one state to another.

The new guidelines are a trimmed down version of the ones introduced last year. If automakers choose to go through the approval process, vehicles would go through a 12-point safety assessment rather than the 15-point assessment initially proposed.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.