- Critics warned Monday that federal policy on autonomous vehicles (AVs) has a "number of parallels" to the policies that regulated the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, which was grounded last year after several high-profile crashes resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and cost Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg his job. The parallels include the reliance on voluntary self-assessment safety reports that can be submitted for federal review.
- At an event on Capitol Hill, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Cathy Chase said there is not enough training for AV operators; the technology for identifying obstacles and hazards on the road is untested; and developers and technology companies have too much influence over regulators that are supposed to oversee them. "There's a lack of adequate government oversight and an industry that has gotten a little too close to that oversight as well," Chase said.
- Federal officials rejected these characterizations and said the safety standards outlined in AV 4.0 are sufficient. During a panel discussion at the Transportation Research Board's (TRB) annual meeting in Washington, DC, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Acting Administrator James Owens said the safety efforts outlined are "an opportunity for developers to publicize the efforts they are taking to promote safety and also to increase transparency with the traveling public," and will mean a "marketplace of ideas" among developers as they push each other to higher safety standards.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s release of AV 4.0 last week at CES prompted criticism from outside groups who said the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is asleep at the wheel when it comes to safety, federal preemption of state and local laws and data sharing. Critics also suggest the agency is guilty of letting industry self-regulate when it has been shown to not be capable of doing so properly.
In a statement, Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), said USDOT "chose to disregard legitimate concerns" around safety. Meanwhile, in a statement last week, Chase said the claim that AVs must be deployed quickly to avoid the U.S. falling behind other countries — which has been advanced by many, including proponents in Congress — is a "fallacy."
"[This] claim is misleading as other countries are taking a more deliberate, careful and cautious approach," Chase said.
The concerns about safety echo those raised to Smart Cities Dive by multiple sources late last year, who questioned whether the new iteration of federal legislation to regulate AVs does enough to ensure they are safe. Observers will also recall the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last year, which faulted Uber and federal regulators for not doing enough to ensure AVs are safe before letting them test on public roads. An Uber-owned AV struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ in 2018.
Interestingly, AV 4.0's safety provisions came under fire on Twitter from NTSB member Jennifer Homendy, who greeted news of its voluntary self-assessments with a shrug emoji.
“Safety is our #1 priority.” AV 2.0 - voluntary safety self-assessments; AV 3.0 - voluntary safety self-assessments; AV 4.0 - voluntary safety self-assessments. ????♀️ https://t.co/TSwHnQBD1C— Jennifer Homendy (@JenniferHomendy) January 8, 2020
There is plenty of work to be done on regulating AVs. During the TRB panel discussion, Finch Fulton, USDOT's deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, said the agency is targeting this year for the release of its AV Comprehensive Plan, which will help govern AV use and their impact on areas like transit and the labor market.
"It's not going to be right, but we’re trying to be as not wrong as possible," he said, noting that plans such as that go through several iterations.
Meanwhile, several people at the Capitol Hill event called for stronger safety provisions in an AV bill being written by staffers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and released publicly in sections. They also said the government should do more to assert oversight over developers.
"It seems impossible we've arrived in 2020 with no action from the federal government to protect the American people from thousands of unproven, driverless vehicles being tested on public roads," Jason Levine, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety, said. "Worse, it's unimaginable that nothing has been done to inhibit car technology companies from creating an unsafe corporate culture that prizes profits over people."