Obama Official Defends Front-End Regulatory Approach to Self-Driving Cars

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The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told lawmakers Tuesday that a front-end regulatory approach on self-driving cars will benefit innovation and consumer safety — remarks that drew measured support from Democrats and Republicans.

“For 50 years, our traditional approach has largely been reactive,” Administrator Mark Rosekind said at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. “NHTSA prescribes safety standards and then responds to safety problems as they arise. … Our view is that that approach would be slow, it would stymie innovation and it would stall the introduction of these new safety technologies.”

The Department of Transportation issued policy guidelines in September for autonomous driving technologies. The approach allows the agency “to work with automakers and developers on the front end to ensure there are sound approaches to safety throughout the entire development process,” Rosekind said.

Administration officials hope that if DOT works with companies to ensure they implement sufficient safety features, the agency won’t need to impose regulations that hinder development. Industry cooperation also tends to outpace the regulatory schedule.

“We’ve already seen best practices come from the [auto] industry basically on cybersecurity,” Rosekind said. “We saw 20 of them come together and basically make a commitment to get automatic emergency braking on the road standard in all their vehicles by 2022, beating regulation probably by three to four years.”

But he warned that NHTSA “has not given up and will continue to pursue all of our rulemaking and enforcement authorities.”

Republican lawmakers cautioned against implementing regulations that may slow industry development. “It is our job to make sure that innovation is allowed to occur and is not hindered by burdensome and unnecessary regulation,” said Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.).

Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to human choice or error — texting, driving drunk, speeding — according to Rosekind, who said NHTSA foresees “a world with fully self-driving cars that hold the potential to eliminate traffic fatalities altogether.”

Democrats, while hopeful of the boon autonomous vehicles could offer for auto safety, said they’re worried about cybersecurity and the interaction between autonomous and manual cars.

“We are not going to shift to 100 percent self-driving cars overnight,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) said.

Morning Consult