Waymo, Cruise, and others call on the NHTSA to take action on human controls
The federal government should rewrite the safety rules for automobile manufacturing so self-driving carmakers can deploy vehicles without traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals, according to public comments submitted by top car and tech companies.
And they should be quick about it.
“We urge [the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration] to move ahead promptly to remove the regulatory barriers the agency has identified,” David Quinalty, head of federal policy and government affairs at Waymo, wrote in a letter posted online on Thursday.
BE QUICK ABOUT IT
The letter is in response to a request for public comment by the NHTSA to a proposal it made last May to amend the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, a list of 75 rules that automakers must follow before selling cars to customers. Currently, those rules state that cars need to have controls such as a steering wheel and pedals.
But self-driving cars may not need these controls, proponents say, and the rules could be a hindrance to the technology being widely released at scale. Waymo and others like Cruise, the self-driving division of GM, and Ford hope to inevitably release tens of thousands of driverless cars without any human controls. Only by cutting the human completely out of the equation can an autonomous vehicle operate safely, these companies argue. And the NHTSA is considering rewriting the rules so self-driving car companies like Waymo can release cars without those features.
Waymo’s letter is full of language like “promptly,” “should move rapidly,” and “urges NHTSA not to await” the completion of other third-party research into autonomous technology. The message it sends is one of urgency: the government needs to drop everything and change the damn rules already.
If this seems a bit like putting the cart before the self-driving horse to you, you’re not alone. Most self-driving car companies now insist that their vehicles are years, if not decades, away from being able to safely operate without any human monitoring. Cruise recently delayed its expected launch of a robot taxi service in San Francisco beyond the end of 2019. Waymo, which is seen as having the most advanced tech, operates most of its vehicles with safety drivers behind the wheel who can take control if the situation demands it.
SAFETY ADVOCATES ARE URGING THE NHTSA TO TAKE ITS TIME
Safety advocates are urging the NHTSA to take its time in deliberating these changes. For example, the Center for Auto Safety “strongly question[s]” the NHTSA’s decision to prioritize these rule changes considering self-driving cars are still in their “infancy and quite likely decades away from widespread practical utility.”
The National Automobile Dealers Association, meanwhile, takes issue with the use of the term “barriers” to describe current safety standards and argues that self-driving cars should continue “to allow also for human control.”
Cruise, meanwhile, called on the NHTSA to “drive this critical dialogue with a sense of urgency so that the necessary regulatory evolution keeps pace with advancing technology.” But the GM-owned company also believes “a flexible, multipronged approach” will serve its needs.
But despite these calls for urgency, the federal government is not typically known for its ability of speedy changes. According to Reuters, it could take the agency until at least 2025 to complete a comprehensive rewrite of various safety standards.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to mull over legislation that could open the door even wider for more self-driving cars to hit the road. The first effort stalled after several Democratic senators put it on hold, citing safety concerns. A more recent effort to attach the bill to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration was defeated. Now, lawmakers are trying to cobble together a new bill that, by all accounts, will look a lot like the original one.