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Trump’s self-driving car strategy: Don’t regulate self-driving cars

Enlarge / Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. (credit: betterDCregion)

On Tuesday, the Trump administration released a document laying out its vision for the self-driving car industry. Titled "Automated Driving Systems 2.0," it gives recommendations for car manufacturers, technology companies, and state regulators about how to handle the self-driving car revolution.

The most important sentence in the document is this one: "This Guidance is entirely voluntary, with no compliance requirement or enforcement mechanism." In other words, if Waymo, GM, or the California DMV want to throw the document in the trash unread, they're free to do so. To a large extent, the Trump administration's strategy for regulating self-driving cars is to not regulate self-driving cars.

It's not surprising to see a Republican administration pursuing a deregulatory agenda, but this actually represents a continuation of the approach taken by the Obama administration. The new document updates guidance released a year ago by the previous administration. Like the Trump team, Obama regulators worried that premature regulation could stifle innovation in self-driving technology. So the Obama-era guidance was also non-binding.

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Fuel economy rules would decouple “miles traveled” trend from “gas used” trend

(credit: epSos.de)

If federal fuel economy rules aren’t weakened, US drivers could consume 1.2 million fewer barrels of gasoline per day in 2025 than today. That’s the projection of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the energy statistics branch of the US Energy Department.

Today, the administration posted some numbers from its “Annual Energy Outlook 2017” report concerning light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency and how it could affect gas consumption out to 2025 and 2040. The EIA noted that by 2040, more cars than ever will be on the road, and billions of miles will be added to the collective miles traveled in the US by car per year. But if automakers meet current fuel-economy standards out to 2025, the US light-duty fleet could actually reduce the amount of gasoline that it collectively burns.

But the EIA’s numbers are based on a report completed in January 2017. Since then, things have changed. At the beginning of the year, the Obama-era EPA finalized the 2025 fuel-economy rules ahead of schedule, just before the Trump administration took office. Once in charge, Trump and his new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt bowed to automaker pressure to re-open the review process for those 2025 fuel-economy rules, saying the rules would place an unnecessary cost burden on manufacturers (although third-party research organizations contest this).

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Car makers can’t “drive their way to safety” with self-driving cars

(credit: Ford)

The push for self-driving cars—at least here in the US—is happening mostly in the name of increasing road safety. More than 33,000 people die on US roads each year, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says its data shows that "in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, the critical cause is a human factor."

Advanced driver-assistance systems (think Tesla's autopilot or the semiautonomous mode on Audi's A4) are already a boon to the driver, reducing fatigue and keeping an ever-vigilant watch out for hazards, but the RAND Corporation has just published a study that suggests we may never be able to prove the safety of a self-driving car.

"Under even aggressive testing assumptions," the authors write, "existing fleets would take tens and sometimes hundreds of years to drive these miles—an impossible proposition if the aim is to demonstrate their performance prior to releasing them on the roads for consumer use. These results demonstrate that developers of this technology and third-party testers cannot simply drive their way to safety. Instead, they will need to develop innovative methods of demonstrating safety and reliability."

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Car makers ask US to slow down on allowing self-driving cars

A Google self-driving car. (credit: Google)

As US regulators consider issuing guidance allowing the sale of self-driving cars, an industry group representing automakers has urged the government to take things slow.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in January that within six months it intended to "develop guidance on the safe deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles." The agency is working with officials in states and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to develop a "model state policy" that would eventually lead to a consistent policy for the whole country.

With that effort in progress, the NHTSA held a public hearing Friday to get different viewpoints. Paul Scullion, safety manager at the Association of Global Automakers, warned that issuing guidance instead of writing regulations could allow dangerous cars on the road. "While this process is often time-consuming, these procedural safeguards are in place for valid reasons," Scullion said, according to the Associated Press.

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FBI cautions motorists to “maintain awareness” of automobile hacks

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are warning motorists to watch for signs that their vehicles may have been hacked.

"While not all hacking incidents may result in a risk to safety—such as an attacker taking control of a vehicle—it is important that consumers take appropriate steps to minimize risk," a bulletin from the agencies said. The announcement said the agencies "are warning the general public and manufacturers—of vehicles, vehicle components, and aftermarket devices—to maintain awareness of potential issues and cybersecurity threats related to connected vehicle technologies in modern vehicles."

The bulletin comes as the so-called "Internet of Things" is taking hold of the automotive sector. What's more, researchers are exposing remote vehicle exploits, and there's been high-profile vehicle recalls directly connected to hacking vulnerabilities. A video of a jeep Cherokee exploit that could affect more than a million vehicles triggered a large-scale recall of Jeep and Dodge vehicles last year. General Motors sent out an emergency update to its smartphone app that could allow hackers to unlock and start the engine of the Chevrolet Volt. BMW fixed a vulnerability where hackers could unlock doors on some 2.2 million vehicles.

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