Self-driving car leaders ask for national laws

1 year ago
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Self-driving car proponents on Tuesday urged Congress to regulate the industry to avoid a patchwork of state laws they contend could impede innovation.

Representatives from Google, automaker General Motors, ride-sharing service Lyft and auto supplier Delphi said regulations are needed but said they must come from the federal government.

Their pleas — delivered during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — come as auto companies say self-driving cars that only occasionally need a driver’s intervention are a few years away from hitting the road, while completely self-driving cars may arrive only a few years later.

Chris Urmson, technical leader of Google’s self-driving car project, told the committee that legislators in 23 states have introduced 53 bills regulating autonomous cars in recent years. Key issues include liability and testing rules.

“If every state is left to go its own way without a unified approach, operating self-driving cars across state boundaries would be an unworkable situation and one that will significantly hinder safety innovation, interstate commerce, national competitiveness and the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles,” Urmson said.

A national approach may need to come fairly soon. Mike Ableson, vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning for General Motors, said GM expects to introduce autonomous vehicles with drivers capable of taking over within “a couple of years.” He said the initial roll-out would occur in a ride-sharing partnership with mobile-app Lyft, which recently received a $500 million investment from GM.

Among the chief disputes at the state level is whether a licensed driver should be required in vehicles during on-road testing.

California regulators recently said yes, dealing a blow to Google’s high-profile project. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says no.

The hearing came two months after NHTSA signaled plans to coordinate a push for national self-driving car regulations. And the Obama administration has proposed spending $3.9 billion over 10 years to accelerate development of self-driving cars and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind have said their goal is to someday reach a point where there are zero roadway deaths — under the premise that a complex mix of software and sensors will eventually make self-driving cars virtually error-proof.

“We are facing an opportunity to expand the options for transportation by car by also making it smarter and safer,” said committee chairman, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

But engineers must first shield vehicles from cyber attacks and said self-driving cars must operate seamlessly in bad weather — two significant challenges for the auto industry, said Mary (Missy) Louise Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab and Duke Robotics.

“I am decidedly less optimistic,” she told the panel. Self-driving cars are “absolutely not ready for widespread deployment, and certainly not ready for humans to be completely taken out of the driver’s seat.”

Customer acceptance remains a hurdle, too.

Take former astronaut Bill Nelson, for example. The Democratic senator from Florida knows a thing or two about complex machinery — but even he got a little nervous Tuesday as he activated automated steering in a Tesla Motors electric vehicle and took his hands off the steering wheel.

He got cold feet as the Model S sedan merged onto a freeway.

“As we approached the concrete wall, my instincts could not resist,” he said, describing the experience. “I grabbed the wheel.”

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