U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao rolled out a new set of federal guidelines for self-driving car technologies on Tuesday, aimed at streamlining development by removing federal approval before the vehicles are allowed on public roads.
Automakers welcome the more relaxed, voluntary approach laid out during a press conference at a self-driving test facility in Ann Arbor, Mich., but safety advocates say it’s a dangerous weakening of auto-industry regulations that could put drivers at risk.
Chao said the goal is to capitalize on safety benefits promised by self-driving technology as soon as possible. More than 35,000 people die each year in traffic accidents and 94 percent of all car accidents involve human error, according to research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Safety must always be No. 1” at the DOT, Chao said. “But we must take a look at how autonomous drive technology will augment safety.”
Consumer safety advocates, including Consumer Reports, say more forceful oversight is required, and not just on a voluntary basis.
“This is a clear step backward for consumer safety that sends a troubling message about the Transportation Department’s priorities under the new administration,” said David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.
Friedman pointed out the irony that Chao’s announcement Tuesday came on the same day the National Traffic Safety Board ruled that Tesla’s Autopilot, a suite of self-driving technology features, played a “major role” in a fatal crash last year.
“On that same day, Secretary Chao indicated that the Department will go easy on automakers, and that it will expect them to do less to verify the safety of emerging automated vehicle systems,” he said. “It’s an abdication of responsibility.”