Fri | Jun 23, 2017

Automakers beseech Congress | Self-driving car laws needed

Published:Sunday | March 12, 2017 | 3:03 AM

WASHINGTON:

The drumbeat for federal regulations to prevent a thicket of state rules on self-driving cars gained volume on Tuesday as auto companies beseeched Congress to step in to halt the growing patchwork of laws.

Executives from automakers Toyota, General Motors, and Volvo and an executive at ride-hailing app Lyft urged lawmakers to use their constitutional authority to pre-empt state laws on self-driving cars.

In testimony before a House subcommittee, Lyft government relations vice-president Joseph Okpaku said a thicket of varying regulations at states, cities, and counties threatens to throttle innovation. Legislators in more than 20 states have proposed nearly 60 bills to regulate autonomous vehicles since January 1, Okpaku said.

Enacted laws range from a restrictive framework in California, which has sparred with businesses over self-driving car tests, to a fairly unencumbered environment in Michigan.

General Motors strategy vice-president Michael Ableson called for Congress to grant the secretary of transportation the authority "to grant specific exemptions for highly automated vehicle development".

GM is currently testing 50 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt sedans in real-world environments, including California and Michigan, and plans to roll them out first in Lyft fleets.

 

Regulatory framework

 

Among the vexing issues for lawmakers is how to develop a regulatory framework that adapts for the rapidly changing world of self-driving vehicles. The cars will be developed in iterative fashion, with partially autonomous technology already available and fully self-driving cars still many years away.

Members of the congressional subcommittee largely expressed bipartisan support for the development of autonomous vehicles, though there was little indication of whether they were inclined to adopt uniform legislation on self-driving cars.

It's "exciting on a personal level," said Rep Gregg Harper, R-Mississippi, who saidthat his "special needs" son could benefit from access to self-driving cars. "The possibilities are so good here for people in the disability community."

Auto executives expressed concern that well-intentioned efforts to protect consumers will undermine development.

One of the key challenges is, "how safe is safe enough" to allow self-driving cars on the road, Toyota Research Institute CEO Gill Pratt testified.

Pratt said that it's unlikely that people would accept a significant number of deaths attributable to autonomous vehicles.

"Society tolerates a significant amount of human error on our roads. We are, after all, only human," he testified. "Humans show nearly zero tolerance for injuries or deaths caused by flaws in a machine."

Lawmakers said that there needs to be a balance between safety and technological development.

"Nobody wants to let unsafe technologies on the road, but we also don't want to prevent vehicles that improve safety from reaching consumers easier," said Rep Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan.

But Dingell said that crash fatalities would be a "public health epidemic" if it were any other industry.

More than 35,000 people were killed in US auto crashes in 2015. More than nine of 10 crashes are caused by human error.

The Obama administration's Transportation Department embraced autonomous vehicle technology as a key catalyst for its goal of eliminating roadway deaths within 30 years. The Trump administration has said little about the matter, though President Trump has pledged to reduce regulations in general.

For now, states are leading the way on regulations, with California taking a particularly proactive approach.

Anders Karrberg, vice-president of government affairs for Volvo, said that certain aspects of California's standards are "onerous".