Self-driving cars face an uncertain path to deployment in the US
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Automakers and tech companies face a bumpy road to removing regulatory barriers to deploying autonomous vehicles (AVs) without human control on public roads, industry officials and lawmakers said.
On Wednesday, Ford Motor Co and Volkswagen AG said they were shutting down self-driving startup Argo AI because the technology is still a long way off. The same applies to rules relating to technology.
Legislation in Congress has stalled for more than five years to change regulations to include self-driving cars, including the scope of consumer and legal protections.
And US regulators have given no indication of when they might respond to petitions to initially allow a few thousand self-driving cars on US roads without steering wheels or brake pedals. U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials on Thursday declined to say when they might take action.
US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said this month he had “very high hopes on the theoretical possibility that self-driving cars and high-tech cars will save thousands and thousands of lives because people have what are basically grueling track records as drivers. But we’re not there yet.”
Some in the industry and in Washington also see the development of self-driving vehicle technology as a competitive issue.
Many lawmakers and industry have urged Buttigieg to develop a comprehensive federal framework for autonomous vehicles, warning that the United States could lose the AV race to China.
“We are lagging behind in designing a regulatory framework that encourages this innovation while protecting and promoting all the important benefits that we believe autonomous vehicles can offer,” a dozen U.S. Democratic Senators wrote in April.
The letter cites efforts by competitors, notably China, which have “invested significantly in autonomous and connected vehicle technologies.”
RISING ROAD ACCIDENTS
The issue has taken on new urgency as the number of road deaths in the US has skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising 10.5% to 42,915 last year. That was the highest number of deaths in a year since 2005.
Proponents say autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce road deaths, expand mobility access for the disabled, reduce parking needs in congested cities and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
In July, NHTSA, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, opened for comment petitions from General Motors and Ford asking the regulator to grant exemptions for the use of up to 2,500 self-driving vehicles without human controls, such as steering wheels and brake pedals, annually per manufacturer . Neither automaker is seeking approval to sell self-driving vehicles to consumers.
GM plans to use the Origin, a vehicle with subway-style doors and no steering wheels. GM says the vehicle will prompt passengers to buckle up before beginning their autonomous journey.
But the Detroit-based carmaker has met with resistance. Following a GM petition and an accident involving an autonomous vehicle in June, the City and County of San Francisco said in their comments that GM and Cruise did not provide adequate data and “were unable to document safety performance.” or to analyze” of the self-driving vehicle. drive vehicles.
Cruise said the “overwhelming majority of public comments submitted on Cruise Origin have been positive, underscoring the benefits of the vehicle’s sustainability and accessibility and support for American jobs.”
In 2017, the US House of Representatives passed legislation to speed up the adoption of self-driving cars and prevent states from setting performance standards, but the legislation never passed the US Senate.
“We’re working hard to find those common ground to achieve something we can stand by,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, told Reuters in July.
The prospects for the new Congress beginning in January are deeply uncertain and the legislation has met strong opposition from unions and groups representing plaintiffs’ lawyers.
While no legislation is passed, NHTSA has ramped up testing of advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicle systems in recent months. Last year, the agency instructed all automakers and tech companies to promptly report accidents involving self-driving vehicles.
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)