WASHINGTON–The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to revise safety rules that bar fully self-driving cars from the roads without equipment such as steering wheels, pedals, and mirrors, according to a document made public on Oct. 4.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “intends to reconsider the necessity and appropriateness of its current safety standards” as applied to automated vehicles, the U.S. Department of Transportation said in an 80-page update of its principles dubbed “Automated Vehicles 3.0.”
The department, as reported by Reuters earlier on Oct. 4, disclosed that the NHTSA wants comment “on proposed changes to particular 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.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao released the document at a department event. In the report, Chao said that self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically reduce traffic crashes and road deaths. But she added the “public has legitimate concerns about the safety, security, and privacy of automated technology.”
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.
General Motors Co. in January filed a petition seeking an exemption for the current rules to use vehicles without steering wheels and other human controls as part of a ride-sharing fleet it plans to deploy in 2019.
NHTSA has not declared the GM petition complete, a step necessary before it can rule on the merits. NHTSA said it plans to propose modernizing procedures to follow when reviewing exemption petitions.
Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo unit plans to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service for the general public with no human driver behind the steering wheel in Arizona later this year. But unlike GM, Waymo’s vehicles will have human controls for the time being.
In March, a self-driving Uber Technologies Inc. vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian, while the backup safety driver was watching a video, police said. Uber suspended testing in the aftermath and some safety advocates said the crash showed the system was not safe enough to be tested on public roads.
NHTSA has stepped up its self-driving car focus as legislation in Congress on self-driving cars, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2017, has stalled. It has only a slender chance of being approved in 2018, congressional aides said.
The report said “NHTSA’s current statutory authority to establish motor vehicle safety standards is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the design and performance of different” automated vehicles.
The Center for Auto Safety said NHTSA should require companies to “submit evidence” that their self-driving technology is safe “before involuntarily involving human beings in their testing.”
GM said in a statement on Oct. 4 that “legislation is still urgently needed” to allow “the full deployment of self-driving vehicles.”
Automakers have warned it could take too long for NHTSA to rewrite the rules to allow for the widespread of adoption of self-driving cars without human controls.
The department also said it “no longer recognizes the designations of ten automated vehicle proving grounds” announced in January 2017.
The sites, including a Michigan center that U.S. President Donald Trump visited last year, 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.
The Transportation Department also announced it will start studying the workforce impacts of automated vehicles with the Labor, Commerce, and the Health and Human Services departments.
The report also said the Trump administration will not support calls to end human driving. The department “embraces the freedom of the open road, which includes the freedom for Americans to drive their own vehicles.”
On Oct. 4, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. announced that it will invest $2.75 billion and take a 5.7 percent stake in GM’s Cruise self-driving vehicle unit, to jointly develop autonomous vehicles for deployment in ride services fleets around the world.
This comes months after Japan’s SoftBank Group made a multibillion-dollar commitment to Cruise. That puts Cruise in a league with Alphabet Inc’s Waymo unit in terms of resources and aggressive plans to launch commercial services.
By David Shepardson