Safety groups seek hands-on regulation of autonomous vehicle testing

WASHINGTON — Industry players, regulators and consumer safety advocates agree that autonomous vehicles have the potential to sharply decrease deaths and injuries by minimizing human error. But as the first wave of legislation takes shape, new fault lines are emerging over how strictly to regulate testing.

Safety groups are mounting opposition to a new House Republican legislative package governing self-driving vehicles, saying the proposals give automakers too much of a free hand to test new technology on public roads.

The legislative drafts introduced last month “appear to be written for industry to enable a rush to market at the potential risk of significant danger to all those on the roads,” Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection.

Several Democrats are also calling for stronger safety protections, while cautioning that rules shouldn’t deter innovation important to winning the global competition for autonomous vehicle development.

Disagreements primarily focus on language that would pre-empt states from setting autonomous vehicle performance standards during testing and allow a significant increase in the number of vehicles that would be exempt from existing motor vehicle safety standards, which developers argue is crucial for validating the technology and following through on their investment plans.

“I think the safety organizations have an important role and will be listened to carefully by the legislators,” Daniel Savrin, who helps lead Morgan Lewis’ automotive legal practice, said in an interview. “But there’s a need to allow for development because we’re not at the product stage yet.”

At last week’s hearings, safety groups voiced objections to the LEAD’R Act — shorthand for Let NHTSA Enforce Autonomous Vehicle Driving Regulations — which would preclude states and localities from regulating autonomous vehicle systems.

They say states should not be pre-empted from protecting citizens in the absence of strong federal standards and regulations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency has issued only nonbinding guidelines describing voluntary practices and procedures for manufacturers, as well as delineating federal and state roles in certification and regulation of autonomous vehicles.

Meanwhile, dozens of states have proposed or enacted rules and regulations related to self-driving vehicles, but automakers and tech companies say a single national framework for safety standards is necessary to keep costs in check.

The bill says “states can’t do anything unless it’s identical to what NHTSA has done,” Alan Morrison, a former director and co-founder with Ralph Nader of Public Citizen’s litigation group, testified last week. “Since NHTSA has done nothing, and has no immediate intention of doing anything, that means no matter how little NHTSA does the states can’t do anything.”

Public interest groups also oppose another bill that would expand to 100,000 from 2,500 the number of vehicles per year an automaker can seek to exempt from federal motor vehicle safety standards to field-test new technology. Any exemptions, they insist, should be limited to equipment needed for the driving task, not for a vehicle’s crashworthiness or occupant protection.

Morrison, a law professor at George Washington University, said 100,000 vehicles per year multiplied by 30 autonomous vehicle developers sounded more like deployment mode than testing. While proponents note that the exempt fleet would still need to provide an equivalent level of safety to conventional vehicles to qualify for the special treatment, assessing that would be very difficult “for vehicles that have never been tested, that have totally new features, and which don’t have brake pedals or steering wheels,” Morrison said.

The safety groups envision broader powers for NHTSA. The agency’s “practical ability to get unsafe cars off the road quickly is limited,” William Wallace, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, told lawmakers. “For the agency to be the kind of watchdog consumers deserve, Congress should give it the authority to take immediate action on defects that present an imminent hazard, or those that substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death,” similar to authority now enjoyed by the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety also recommends that NHTSA require manufacturers to meet a “functional safety standard” — beyond certifying individual safety system standards, similar to the process used by the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that an aircraft as a whole will function safely.

Industry representatives say the regulatory leeway is needed to ensure that the technology is safe. The expanded fleet of exempt vehicles, they say, is necessary to gather large volumes of real-world data so they can quickly reprogram software for various driving scenarios, thereby speeding safety improvements.

Manufacturers would submit evidence and go through a public comment period to prove exemptions are justified, “so the notion that this is the Wild West is just not accurate,” said Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

David Strickland, a former NHTSA administrator in the Obama administration and current counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, argued that the LEAD’R Act is necessary because “if states created 50 mini-NHTSAs, it would be the undoing of the auto market and damage our ability to move new technologies into the fleet thoughtfully and safely.”

The coalition was founded a year ago by Ford Motor Co., Lyft, Uber, Volvo Car Group and Google’s self-driving car division, now called Waymo.

Subcommittee Chairman Robert Latta, R-Ohio, has said his goal is to have a vote on bipartisan autonomous vehicle legislation by the end of July.

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