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Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

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Driverless Car Industry Gets a Nudge on Standards and Transparency

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Driverless Car Industry Gets a Nudge on Standards and Transparency

  • Highway safety agency creating voluntary effort on testing
  • Agency’s effort heavily criticized by highway safety advocates
Aerial Views Of Rush Hour Traffic

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Hundreds of driverless cars have been tested in locations across the U.S. in recent years, but standards are inconsistent and in a handful of cases there have been accidents and even a death.

Now, the federal government wants to improve how those tests are conducted and create more transparency for a nascent industry that seeks to transform how people drive -- but is casting aside calls for stricter regulations.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is unveiling a voluntary initiative Monday in an attempt to bring together state and local governments along with autonomous-vehicle developers such as Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo LLC.

“There clearly have been incidents that have demonstrated difficulties in testing and in areas where testing has fallen short of the safety standards that we all expect,” James Owens, deputy administrator of NHTSA, said in an interview.

The government’s approach drew swift condemnation by highway-safety advocates and the non-mandatory format falls short of 2019 recommendations by federal accident investigators.

“Unfortunately, NHTSA’s reliance on voluntary industry actions to accomplish this is a recipe for disaster,” Cathy Chase, president of the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a press release.

Read More: Driverless Tractors Are Edging Closer in the English Countryside

Owens said that the legal authority over such tests resides with states and the federal government has no plans to mandate standards. But the highway safety agency intends to build a website where the public can see where tests are being held and learn details about how they are conducted.

The agency also plans to bring together government officials and the industry so they can share what has worked and what hasn’t, he added. It is hosting a three-day symposium on the topic, starting Monday.

“This will help improve safety and transparency for the on-road testing of automated vehicles,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at the opening of the symposium.

Panelists in sessions Wednesday and Thursday will include industry representatives of Waymo, Nuro, Beep, Toyota Motor Corp. and Aurora, according to an agenda.

Fully autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically change road travel and to lower highway deaths from factors such as drunk driving. The vehicles remain works in progress, and government agencies are still attempting to adapt existing regulations to the new designs.

Another advocacy group, the Center for Auto Safety, accused NHTSA of ignoring its petition in October 2018 calling on the agency to require companies testing autonomous vehicles to submit safety information to the federal government.

“The Department of Transportation in concert with NHTSA, has once again chosen to show where its true allegiance lies: corporate interests,” the center said in a press release.

The agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comments on the criticism its event received.

NHTSA’s vision for improving testing of such vehicles falls short of recommendations issued last November by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The safety board found multiple failures in how Uber Technologies Inc. conducted tests of a prototype self-driving vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. The Uber vehicle struck and killed a woman in 2018. Its sensors had failed to properly detect the woman, who was jaywalking as she pushed her bicycle across a road. A safety driver in the vehicle was distracted and didn’t brake in time.

The safety agency issued two recommendations to NHTSA to tighten control of such testing by requiring entities to submit safety assessments and to monitor them.

In a March 6 letter to the NTSB, Owens said his agency shares concerns over how testing is conducted, but it believes a voluntary approach “is the best and quickest way to advance the shared goals of public transparency and safety.”

Earlier: Fatal Self-Driving Uber Crash Prompts Call for Tighter Oversight

NHTSA is also preparing to release later this year a preliminary outline of possible regulations that would set safety principles for autonomous vehicles, Owens said in the interview.

“We definitely want to make sure, first and foremost, that whatever innovation is occurring, that safety is baked into product design and safety is baked into the testing of the product,” he said.

— With assistance by Ryan Beene

(Updates with criticism of agency, Chao quote from second paragraph. An earlier version corrected number of days the symposium will take place in sixth paragraph.)