Driverless Car Policy Needs Clarification: Toyota Executive

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By Stephanie Beasley

Oct. 11 — The auto industry wants the next administration to pick up where the Obama administration left off and clarify recently released federal guidance on the deployment of self-driving cars, a Toyota Motor Corp. official told Bloomberg BNA.

The company has found a lot of “ambiguity and vagueness” as it goes through the industry guidelines that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put out last month for automated vehicle technology, particularly in areas like cybersecurity, Hilary M. Cain, Toyota's director of technology and innovation policy, said during an Oct. 11 event hosted by R Street Institute in Washington.

Cain acknowledged the industry has encouraged federal regulators to be flexible in overseeing autonomous vehicle technologies, but she said the NHTSA guidance needs “more meat on the bones,” including the areas of cybersecurity and data collection. Clarity is important, she said, because NHTSA has implied that manufacturers will be held accountable for failing to heed the guidance.

NHTSA's guidance includes a 15-point safety assessment that the agency requested auto manufacturers voluntarily complete before introducing automated cars to the market (See previous story, 09/21/16).

Moving Forward Without Clarity

The Obama administration is expected to hold public meetings on autonomous vehicle technology for both consumers and the auto industry before the end of the year, according to Cain. But she said the task of providing more clarity and updating the guidance so that it is more comprehensive will fall to the next administration.

“This administration, I mean, the boxes are being packed up,” she told Bloomberg BNA. “They're on their way out. So I think it's largely about communicating some of the areas of potential improvement to the new NHTSA administration so that we can maybe expedite some of the areas that could be improved upon.”

Adding more urgency to calls for NHTSA to clarify federal self-driving car guidance is the fact that some states are drafting policy that references the 15-point assessment. California, for example, would require auto manufacturers to verify that they have completed NHTSA's recommended safety assessment before being allowed to test autonomous vehicles in the state.

“That is preposterous,” Cain said. “And that means testing that's happening today could be halted, and that means testing that's about to be started could be delayed as we sit here and wait for NHTSA to figure out what exactly they want from us as far as these assessments go. It's a really troubling place that we've found ourselves in.”

Pre-Market Approval, NHTSA Staffing

Also troubling to some stakeholders is NHTSA's proposal that Congress grant the agency the authority to establish a pre-market approval process for self-driving cars.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s pre-market certification of airplane designs is an example of the kind of authority that could help NHTSA evaluate the safety of self-driving cars before they hit the road, NHTSA said recently.

But it doesn't make sense for the NHTSA to try and model a pre-market approval process after the FAA's lengthy and inefficient aircraft certification procedures, according to Adam Thierer, a senior technology policy research fellow at George Mason University. It is odd that NHTSA wants to adopt the FAA's approach when the FAA has recently said it would like to loosen the aircraft certification process, which can sometime stretch over years, Thierer said (See previous story, 09/23/16). He said pre-market approval would slow the pace of driverless car technology adoption.

When it comes to what Congress can do to fill the vacuum, former NHTSA chief David Strickland noted the agency faced a great challenge in managing safety data collected by manufacturers. Strickland, who is now counsel and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, said Congress should provide NHTSA with more resources.

“The one thing that I would ask, is to actually better resource the agency to deal with this new mission,” he said. “Because, frankly, if we think of NHTSA as basically shoehorning an office of five or six more people to deal with all of this, I don't think we're serving the general public or frankly a regulated entity well.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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