ORLANDO — Eighteen months after General Motors requested an exemption from safety standards that may pave the way for deployments of self-driving vehicles without brake pedals and steering wheels, the company has yet to get an answer from federal regulators.
That could soon change.
Finch Fulton, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said a determination could come “soon” on the company’s petition to place its zero-emission autonomous vehicles on public roads. A public comment period for the company’s request closed May 20.
Speaking this month at the Automated Vehicles Symposium, Fulton acknowledged the Transportation Department hadn’t promptly responded to GM’s request. “We’ve had it for a long time now, and that’s not great,” he said. “One of the things we had to learn was to fix our own processes to go forward.”
Those fixes involved removing a departmental requirement for “completeness” before processing the petition.
“Your guess is as good as mine when you deem something complete,” Fulton said. “So now you go straight to public comment.”
The change may help the department provide a quicker answer to a similar exemption request from Nuro, a self-driving delivery company testing vehicles without space for human passengers.
GM petitioned the Transportation Department in January 2018 for an exemption from federal motor vehicle safety standards requiring conventional controls.
Surveys show nearly three-quarters of Americans are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles. But Lyft, in a Las Vegas pilot project, has found significantly less resistance to self-driving rides from everyday customers.
More than 80 percent of people accept rides in the company’s self-driving vehicles when presented with a choice between autonomous and human-driven vehicles, according to Jody Kelman, director of product management for Lyft’s self-driving platform. Of those, she says, 96 percent are willing to ride in a self-driving vehicle again.
The numbers support a broad industry hope that people will embrace self-driving technology once they’re exposed to it.
Lyft, working with Aptiv, has offered more than 50,000 rides to everyday customers on its ride-hailing network. Human safety drivers remain present in the vehicles.
One of the company’s key findings: Customers largely don’t care whether their drivers are automated or human.
“We weren’t sure if customers would feel completely different about it versus a normal Lyft,” Kelman said. “What we found is these riders are just like the rest of them. Consumers’ needs don’t change dramatically, and that’s the insight that’s informing the rest of the work we’re doing.”
Anyone at Aurora Innovation has the authority to ground the company’s self-driving fleet. Granting all employees that power is a central tenet of the company’s safety policy.
Recently, some company engineers did just that. Co-founder Chris Urmson, in his keynote remarks at the symposium, said the engineers noticed their system would track objects to a distance of approximately 80 meters, then they would briefly vanish before reappearing 50 to 60 meters away.
“We expect we will not see things on the road, but our operators noticed a sudden increase of these dropped objects and noticed it happened at this magic distance of 60 to 80 meters,” he said. “They said, ‘This is weird; let’s ground the fleet and dig into it.’ ”
They found that a software update contained a bug that made coordinating returns from long- and short-range lidar units difficult. Engineers fixed the problem and pushed an update to the fleet.
It’s unusual for executives to volunteer such specific information on problems encountered during testing. Rather than avoid discussing engineering complexities, Urmson said the case highlighted the company’s safety protocols at a time when the industry is grappling with how to best implement safety in the self-driving realm.
“It’s not that there was an immediate safety risk,” he said. “But it’s this type of safety process that gives us the basic building blocks of a good safety culture.”