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Trump Administration Keeps Hands Off Self-Driving Cars

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao unveiled the latest regulations for autonomous vehicle technology at Las Vegas CES on Wednesday. Image: Fortune Brainstorm Tech

The Transportation Research Board’s 99th Annual Meeting will be held in Washington, D.C. from Jan. 12-16, 2020. Click here for more information.

The Trump administration is taking a hands-off approach when it comes to regulating driverless cars.

Playing to a crowd of elite tech geeks and globalized gearheads, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao rolled out an updated set of guidelines governing autonomous vehicles that don't actually require any compliance from automotive and technology companies.

“The federal government is all in for safer, better and more inclusive transportation aided by automated driving systems," Chao said Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "At USDOT, we are preparing for the us transportation system of the future. All this speaks to the future and will makes all our lives easier and more enjoyable for everyone on earth."

The new AV document said the government will promote "flexible, technology-neutral policies that will allow the public, not the federal government or foreign governments, to choose the most economically efficient and effective transportation and mobility solutions." The voluntary guidelines include several principles that existed in the three prior versions of the AV framework including an stronger emphasis on safety, modernization and remaining technology neutral, as well as updated provisions on privacy, cybersecurity, patents, and accessibility of vehicles.

“Such innovation requires appropriate government oversight to ensure safety, open markets, strategic allocation of public resources, and protection of the public interest,” Chao said. “It should not be the role of the federal government to pick winners and losers.”

This is the first time senior level White House officials got directly involved in autonomous vehicle technology in order to coordinate coordinate efforts governing artificial intelligence-driven technology among 38 agencies and commissions. The White House also released a memo on the regulation of artificial intelligence two days prior to Chao's talk.

"We are looking at it from multimodal standpoint with other forms of surface transportation as well," White House Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios said at the conference. "We realized autonomous vehicles are not just DOT, but something all agencies are focused on."

But there was no acknowledgement of the immediate challenges regulators face to ensure driverless cars can operate safely. The guidelines ask automakers to do self-assessments on safety. And those assessments are only a polite request; they're not required.

In the first three years of the Trump era, federal regulators have not effectively policed tech companies when glitches endanger people's lives. Elon Musk hung up on the National Transportation Safety Board chairman during a 2018 call about the safety of Tesla vehicles. Last year, the NTSB faulted Uber's lack of safety culture and its software for not identifying a pedestrian before striking and hilling her a year earlier in Arizona. Investigators recommended that safety assessments be made mandatory, and Chao is still reviewing those recommendations.

The Trump administration has abdicated its responsibility to make the rapidly evolving technology safe for everyone in favor of innovation, advocates say.

"Without strong leadership and regulations ... AV manufacturers can and will continue to introduce extremely complex supercomputers-on-wheels onto public roads, in direct contact with vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians and other road users, with meager government oversight," said Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Cathy Chase. "Voluntary guidelines are completely unenforceable, will not result in adequate performance standards, and fall well-short of the safeguards that are necessary to protect the public."    

Of course the USDOT isn't the only governing body with oversight powers over autonomous vehicles. Congress is in the process of drafting AV legislation that would set federal standards on the industry but efforts to pass a comprehensive bill that addresses safety, accessibility, and privacy of these vehicles have stalled in the past two years. In the meantime, states have been left to develop their own standards for allowing testing of driverless vehicles on public roads.

There is hope among some lawmakers that Chao's new guidelines will jump start negotiations on the Hill.

“Self-driving cars promise to save lives, restore independence to seniors and people living with disabilities, and reduce emissions and congestion in our transportation sector," three Republican House members — Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Ohio Rep. Bob Latta — wrote in a statement. "We must build on the great bipartisan work we did last Congress with the SELF DRIVE Act and deliver for the American people so we can see these benefits here at home, rather than abroad."

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