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Uncle Sam Turns Against Automated Vehicles

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 18, 2021

This week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Transportation Department agency charged with regulating auto safety, announced that it is investigating Tesla

TSLA
for crashes caused while drivers use the Tesla Autopilot advanced driver assistance system. This follows a July request for data from other car and equipment companies on incidents with their automated vehicles and advanced driver assisted systems.

The trillion-dollar question is this: Will President Biden continue his predecessors’ support for automated vehicles (AVs) and advanced driver assisted systems that has resulted in extensive progress over the past decade? Or will overly-burdensome reporting requirements and lawsuits slow progress? The answer will determine whether America will retain its leadership in automated vehicle technology.

Over the past few years, the Transportation Department (DOT) encouraged AVs to be developed safely and integrated into America’s transportation system, unlocking billions in private investment and priming the development of new companies such as Cruise, Waymo, Imagry, Kodiak Robotics, and RideCell, Inc. DOT’s regulations promoted automated cars, buses, trucks, and trains. Voluntary guidelines encouraged safe deployment.

Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is imposing complex reporting requirements to discourage new technology.

The NHTSA Administrator is subject to Senate confirmation, but the Administration has not yet proposed a nominee. On June 29, Steve Cliff, the Acting Administrator, announced a Standing General Order demanding regular crash data from 108 domestic and foreign companies, beginning in two weeks, for a period of three years.

These companies include most of the manufacturers of AVs and of vehicles equipped with advanced driver assistance systems, such as lane warnings, blind spot warnings, and adaptive cruise control.

According to the Order, a crash is “any physical impact between a vehicle and another road user… or property that results or allegedly results in any property damage, injury, or fatality. For clarity, a subject vehicle is involved in a crash if it physically impacts another road user or if it contributes or is alleged to contribute (by steering, braking, acceleration, or other operational performance) to another vehicle’s physical impact with another road user or property involved in that crash.”

But this is far from clear. If a company’s vehicle has an incident that “allegedly” results in damage, and the driver disagrees, does it get reported? If a vehicle “is alleged to contribute” to another’s accident, who has the final say?  If a driver glances at a driverless Nuro delivering groceries, and rear-ends another vehicle, Nuro has to report this accident to NHTSA as a crash. Allegations of which companies are unaware could be made by onlookers or in social media.

Since companies must report crashes within a day, with an update in 10 days, there is little time to verify the report or the extent of the crash. NHTSA did not respond to my repeated requests for comment.

In addition, automated vehicle companies, which have practically no accidents, must report all crashes and incidents with no injuries and minor property damage on the 15th of the month following the incident—with updated information reported the following month. There seems to be no justification in treating AVs more harshly.

Violations of the Order are subject to civil penalties of $23,000 per violation per day, up to a maximum of $115 million for each series of violations.

The speed of the Order is puzzling, especially since there has been no uptick in AV accidents. The Order took effect in mid-July and the first monthly report was due in August.

Normally such reporting requirements, including data collection for research, are subject to the Paperwork Reduction Act. Federal agencies must seek public comment on the proposed information collection, which can take months, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decides whether to approve. The process was set up precisely to protect private industry and individuals from costly information requests. 

However, NHTSA’s expansive data collection request was granted immediately by OMB.  NHTSA put out a rarely used “Standing General Order,” and then sought “emergency clearance” from OMB. Emergencies do not require public comment. A Standing General Order was used by NHTSA for the Takata airbag recall, where airbags were exploding and harming drivers and passengers. This is clearly not an emergency of this level. But in general companies are unlikely to challenge regulators, for fear of retaliation. 

Data NHTSA collects will be made public, but without comparison of crash per mile statistics with conventional vehicles, this could confuse the public about safety and lead to false concern about performance.

Data released could contain sensitive business information that would harm American companies. NHTSA could make exceptions, but the Order states that “Making a request for confidential treatment does not ensure that the information claimed to be confidential will be determined to be confidential.”

Resources spent on complying with data collection mandates will slow down development and deployment of new technology. That is bad news for the United States and good news for our global competitors.  

Why is the Administration moving against AVs? NHTSA’s new data rules are a boon to trial lawyers, who will take the public data and use it for lawsuits. Organized labor is skeptical of AVs because it perceives them as reducing jobs in the transportation industry, despite a driver shortage that has reached hundreds of thousands.

AVs are a dream for many Americans, potentially enabling them to travel more at a lower cost. Some believe that Americans should travel less and choose group travel such as rail and bus. The Administration must choose between a dream for consumers and a nightmare for political allies.

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