Trump's Autonomous Car Guidance Puts Automakers in Driver's Seat

Uber-Self-Driving Car
Jason Doiy / ALM

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Tuesday rolled out revamped federal guidance for autonomous vehicle manufacturers, putting the Trump administration’s deregulatory stamp on the fast-developing industry.

The recommendations, dubbed “A Vision for Safety 2.0,” largely builds on the voluntary blueprint laid out for driverless car designers and developers in September 2016 by the Obama administration. But it also makes a number of industry-sought changes and clearly sets the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s role as one of championing—and not intensely regulating—the technology.

“Emerging technologies require an approach that ensures safety while encouraging innovation and preserving creativity and innovation,” Chao said in a speech at the University of Michigan’s Mcity test facility for driverless vehicles. “Our goal at the Department of Transportation is to help usher in this new era of transportation innovation and safety, ensuring that our country remains a global leader in autonomous technology.”

Here are a few takeaways from the new policies issued Tuesday.

Feds want states to stay in their regulatory lanes.

The guidance doesn’t mandate that states stop issuing regulations for autonomous vehicles. Congress may ultimately do that on its own, prodded by automakers eager for a common set of rules across the 50 states. But federal regulators do encourage states to stick to licensing drivers, scrutinizing traffic laws “that may serve as barriers” to driverless cars, conducting safety inspections and maintaining a good infrastructure—while leaving oversight of the hairier autonomous details to the manufacturers and the feds.

The NHTSA “strongly encourages states not to codify this voluntary guidance (that is, incorporate it into state statutes) as a legal requirement,” the guidance says. “Allowing NHTSA alone to regulate the safety design and performance aspects of [automated driving systems] technology will help avoid conflicting federal and state laws and regulations that could impede deployment.”

What does that mean for California, which has spent years now developing rules for the testing and operation of self-driving cars? The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles issued a statement saying officials are reviewing the latest federal changes. The DMV is expected to release the final driverless car regulations by the end of the year.

Aside from autonomous vehicle operations, there’s still room for California to regulate in areas such as auto insurance and liability, said Melody Drummond Hansen, an O’Melveny & Myers partner in the Silicon Valley office.

“Regardless of what the feds do, these are going to be issues that companies are going to continue to face on a state-by-state basis,” Hansen said.

Automakers get more deference under this guidance.

The Obama administration asked manufacturers to voluntarily submit a 15-point safety assessment to offer assurance to regulators and the public before their vehicles hit the market. California’s proposed regulations ask automakers to submit a copy of that assessment.

The new federal guidance cuts the number of safety points to 12. And it says manufacturers can publicly post those assessments themselves—there would be no need to submit them to the DOT for processing before rolling out their vehicles.

“Both the House legislation and NHTSA policy suggest there’s a growing consensus that the technology shouldn’t have to wait for these policies to be developed,” Hansen said.

The federal government’s deference to manufacturers worries consumer groups.

“This isn’t a vision for safety,” said John M. Simpson, privacy project director of Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog. “It’s a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”

Privacy and cyber don’t appear to be in driver’s seat.

Jason Orr, an O’Melveny & Myers associate who’s studied the Obama and Trump guidelines, said the previous administration’s policies were “pretty gung-ho” about sharing autonomous safety data among manufacturers and industry groups. The latest guidance removes data privacy from the original 15-point safety assessment.

“It’s de-emphasized a bit, although there’s still language on cybersecurity to a lesser extent,” Orr said.

NHTSA officials told reporters on a briefing Tuesday that the Federal Trade Commission has the lead role in regulating privacy. Transportation officials also said more research needs to be done in the area of data sharing before any endorsement of the practice.

Manufacturers had complained last year that too much data sharing risked divulging company secrets. The latest guidance emphasizes that there’s no requirement for companies to do so.

Chao said Tuesday that transportation officials are already planning for Version 3.0 of the guidance to be released in 2018.

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