The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has announced an initiative to improve transparency in the self-driving vehicle industry, marking another step forward on the rocky road toward adoption of autonomous cars and trucks in this country.
Also included in the announcement were the names of nine companies and eight states that have signed on as the first participants in the Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (AV TEST) Initiative.
“Through this initiative, the Department is creating a formal platform for federal, state, and local government to coordinate and share information in a standard way,” U.S. DOT Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a press statement.
The participating companies are Beep, Cruise, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Local Motors, Navya, Nuro, Toyota, Uber and Waymo. The states are California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.
What it says
The AV TEST Initiative, a voluntary program, will feature an online, public-facing platform where companies will share their automated driving systems’ testing activities and other safety-related information.
Online mapping tools may show testing locations at the local, state and national levels, the release said, as well as testing activity data, which may include dates, frequency, vehicle counts and routes.
Another goal is to promote safety and innovation, the release said, and build stronger relationships among federal, state and local governments and stakeholders.
Safety concerns persist
The new initiative comes six months after the DOT released its latest guidance on automated vehicles, AV 4.0: Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies.
Although that document, released during CES2020 in January, prioritized safety of autonomous vehicles, it did not update previous guidance from the federal agency that recommended companies publish voluntary safety self-assessments showing how they are not exposing the public to undue risk when testing automated driving systems.
The distinction between mandatory and voluntary safety practices has caused a rift between some of the federal agencies charged with overseeing AV transportation policy.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said last November that regulators should make those assessments mandatory and ensure automated vehicles have appropriate safeguards. The board made the recommendations after investigating the March 2018 death of a pedestrian in a collision with an Uber test vehicle.
NTSB, an independent federal accident investigation agency, is also asking regulators to create a process for evaluating the safety self-assessments, board spokesperson Eric Weiss told FreightWaves.
Weiss said the DOT’s new program consisted primarily of a database to improve transparency, and that the board was attending sessions with NHTSA and DOT this week to discuss further details.
A boost for AV companies
Matthew Lipka, Nuro’s Head of Policy, told FreightWaves that the DOT’s “important initiative” will “help educate the public about what AVs are actually doing today, and what they’re not doing.”
Lipka said when people actually get to interact with Nuro’s vehicle – “when it pulls up to their house with their groceries” – they immediately start to feel more comfortable with the technology. “By sharing more information on how we operate, we hope to demystify this technology for more people, and improve the way they get the errands done in their daily lives.”
Nuro’s custom-designed R2 is used for last-mile delivery of consumer products, groceries, and food from local stores and restaurants.
Waymo did not immediately respond to FreightWaves’ request for comment.
To date, 20 (out of around 65) self-driving companies have submitted safety reports, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In addition to Ford, GM and other automakers, autonomous trucking outfits Ike, TuSimple and, just last week, Kodiak Robotics, have filed documents describing their systems and approaches.