On Tuesday, US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao revealed the updated version of the guidelines for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles. The DOT secretary defended the guidelines, which opt for voluntary guidance rather than enforceable rules. Chao said that a third version is in progress and slated to be introduced in 2018.
“We’re going to emphasize safety, but we also want to preserve the innovation and creativity that’s the hallmark of America,” Chao said, according to the Detroit Free Press. You can read the second version of the guidelines in full here.
Automakers are predictably pleased with the voluntary guidelines, which take a more flexible approach to industry standards than self-driving guidelines issued by the Obama administration in September 2016. Obama’s guidelines included a 15-point federal checklist of safety expectations for driverless cars. Automakers previously voiced objections over them in a letter to Trump. Luckily for them, the updated guidelines Chao introduced this week give self-driving car makers the self-regulating freedom they urged for.
But a statement from Democratic representatives Frank Pallone and Jan Schakowsky called the second version of the driverless car safety guidelines introduced on Tuesday “a step backwards”:
Instead of focusing on safety and ensuring car makers are properly testing these vehicles, the administration chose to cave to industry and pressure states into not acting. Since the Trump Administration is not providing any leadership, Congress must move forward with bipartisan legislation that puts safety first through mandatory safety assessment certifications, a framework for updating safety standards, plans for privacy and cybersecurity, and general improvements in vehicle safety.
John Simpson, a privacy advocate with Consumer Watchdog, similarly slammed the guidelines, telling the LA Times, “This isn’t a vision for safety.”
“It’s a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want,” said Simpson, “turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”
Chao’s defense of the voluntary guidelines argues that innovation needs freedom to flourish. Those opposing that viewpoint see a lack of enforceable federal regulations as a means for automakers to put unsafe vehicles on the road. But Chao’s argument makes the assumption that innovation and enforcement can’t coexist. When we are dealing with actual tons of metal capable of killing humans due to a machine error—which has already happened—it seems dangerous not to prioritize safe vehicles over disgruntled automakers.