5:38 p.m. ET June 13, 2017
Washington — The day before a Senate panel is to discuss federal regulations for self-driving cars, three senators released “principles” to guide that legislation.
U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D.; Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township; and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., all members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, on Tuesday released “bipartisan principles” to guide legislation on self-driving cars. The panel will hold a hearing Wednesday about the “hurdles for testing and deployment” of robotic cars.
The lawmakers said the guidelines would ensure the safety of the cars and reduce regulatory conflicts about autonomous vehicles that most major carmakers are testing.
The senators said the principles call for prioritizing safety, promoting innovation, reinforcing separate federal and state roles, strengthening cybersecurity and educating the public.
“Working on a bipartisan basis, we continue to make progress in writing what we expect will become the first-ever changes in federal law helping usher in this new transportation era,” panel chairman Thune said in a statement.
Peters said the principles are an important step in ensuring the U.S. “remains the world leader in transportation innovation.”
Prior to Tuesday, the federal government’s effort to craft new guidelines for self-driving cars appeared to be stuck in neutral at a time when automakers are actively testing them in Michigan and other states.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had begun working on a set of nonbinding guidelines at the end of the Obama administration, but the agency has been silent about self-driving cars and most other regulations involving automakers since President Donald Trump took office in January.
Carmakers have said they cannot put self-driving cars into production until federal regulators sort out issues involving accident liability and split-second decision-making in life-or-death situations.
Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford told a Washington, D.C., audience recently that “no one manufacturer is going to be able to program in one ethical equation that is different than the others,” so the federal government will likely have to step in.
As an example, he posed the question on whether a car should decide in an emergency situation to save the life of the driver or save 10 pedestrians: “Those all have to be thought through and no one manufacturer is going to be able to program in one ethical equation that is different than the others. I mean, that would be chaos. And imagine the fun the trial lawyers would have with that, too.”
Ford has said it plans to build fully autonomous cars — without a steering wheel or brake or accelerator pedals — for use in ride-hailing or ride-sharing services by 2021. Other automakers have also called for federal guidance as they ramp up self-driving car testing too.
General Motors Co. will work with regulators to update the guidelines proposed by the Obama administration, GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra told reporters Tuesday at an event at its Orion Assembly Plant where the company said 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs had been completed for testing.
“I think as we continue, as this technology is moving at such a rapid pace, as we continue to develop, we’re going to work in partnership with our regulators to make sure we have the right standards because it’s so important for this technology to be rolled out safely,” she said.
Brad Stertz, Audi’s director of government affairs, said his company hopes to get certainty about what’s going to be required for autonomous vehicles as it ramps up testing of a prototype Audi A7 that’s capable of driving autonomously at highway speeds up to 70 mph.
Audi says its self-driving prototype is capable of initiating lane changes and passing, braking automatically and adapting its speed based on posted limits and surrounding vehicles. Stertz said the company is leery about allowing the car to go faster than posted speed limits without federal guidance on how fast is acceptable to keep up with traffic.
“Our position is the car will be programmed to follow the law,” he said. “It may be the slowest car on the interstate, but if you want to go faster, you will just have to drive yourself.”
The Obama administration’s proposed rules focused on 15 guidelines that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on testing and safety to federal regulators before autonomous cars are sold to the public. Before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads, automakers would have been required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if those systems fail.
The U.S. Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the proposed rules. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said recently the Trump administration was planning to update the rules soon.
Safety advocates have said the Trump administration is moving too slowly.
“The Trump administration’s delay on autonomous vehicle policy is outrageous and could ultimately put drivers at risk,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group. “Developers of automated vehicles are rushing to test them and are now turning to states like Arizona were there are new rules in place.”
He noted that no automakers have filed out the proposed 15-point assessment in the original proposal. Although he considers those rules inadequate, “it at least would have indicated that developers had considered critical issues raised by robot cars and would have explained how they intended to deal with those issues.”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for U.S. automakers in Washington, said its members expected the Trump administration to tinker with those proposed rules.
Gloria Bergquist, vice president of public affairs at the alliance, said, “We expect this living document will be modified and improved with appropriate industry collaboration as technology advances.” She said the alliance supports federal leadership to avoid a network of differing state and local laws.
Staff writer Melissa Burden contributed to this report.