A top federal official told lawmakers who are urging regulators to close loopholes on safety standards for autonomous vehicle (AV) testing that doing so could stifle technology development.
Testifying at a U.S. Senate hearing on AV safety, James Owens, acting administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said AV developers are making “significant improvements” to AV technology.
However, “if we establish standards too quickly, we run the risk of stymying innovation,” Owens said at the Nov. 21 hearing. “So we want to step back and let the innovation and competition occur. Meanwhile, we continue to conduct research into how these technologies perform, and learn from developers the technologies they’re pursuing so that we can better assure they’re incorporating safety into their designs.”
NHTSA’s viewpoint frustrated lawmakers looking to the agency to be more proactive in developing mandatory testing requirements in the wake of a report published the previous day by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding a fatal accident involving an Uber [NYSE: UBER] test car in Tempe, Arizona, last year.
The report found that, in addition to an “inadequate safety culture” at Uber, an “absence of safety regulations and guidance” on AV testing at the federal level has prompted some states to develop their own requirements. Based on its investigation, NTSB recommended that NHTSA require companies intending to test AVs on public roads to submit to NHTSA safety self-assessment reports, and that NHTSA establish a process for an ongoing evaluation of those reports to make sure they include appropriate safeguards.
“NHTSA is perfectly positioned to provide an initial level of assessment of developers’ safety testing,” said Ensar Becic, an investigator in NTSB’s highway safety office, during NTSB’s Nov. 19 board meeting discussing the Uber crash investigation results. He added that the lack of a standard on the part of NHTSA to require self-assessments and subsequent evaluations “also removes an important tool for states to determine whether it is sufficient to grant a developer a testing permit to test in their state.”
Asked by lawmakers if he agreed with the NTSB’s recommendations, Owens said his agency would “carefully evaluate them and get back to NTSB as soon as we can.”
Sen. Edward Markey used the opportunity to call out what he considered to be a flaw in Tesla’s [NASDAQ: TSLA] autopilot function. The Massachusetts Democrat highlighted a YouTube video describing how drivers can “trick” the system into thinking a person’s hands are on the steering wheel through use of a strategically placed water bottle. “One driver fell asleep while the car drove 14 miles on autopilot with a water bottle in the steering wheel,” Markey said, citing a Boston news report. “That’s not safe. Somebody’s going to die. We can’t entrust the lives of our drivers and everyone else on the road to a water bottle.”
Owens said he would look into the situation, to which Markey responded, “Tell them to fix it or to disable that technology. That would be my advice.”