Progress or concession?

Are recently announced federal AV guidelines just a sop to industry pressure?

Brian W. Budzynski / October 12, 2017
Brian Budzynski

Recently U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a series of updated federal guidelines aimed at smoothing the path toward getting more autonomous vehicles on the road for testing and deployment. The guidelines were designed to preclude what Secretary Chao characterized as a “patchwork” of state rules and regulations that are, to the mind of the Trump Administration, doing more to hamper AV progress than to assist it.

The new guidelines were sourced, according to the transportation department, from feedback from the public and Congressional hearings, and also were designed to build on and replace the 2016 Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. The aim, said Chao in a statement, is to support “further development of this new technology, which has the potential to change the way we travel and how we deliver goods and services. The safe deployment of automated vehicle technologies means we can look forward to a future with fewer traffic fatalities and increased mobility for all Americans.”

This all sounds quite good, on the surface. But critics (primarily Democrats) are yammering that the new guidelines lack one thing that would seem obvious: enforceable safety standards, or “teeth.” Chao responded to the criticism by saying the guidelines were never meant to have chompers; the guidelines are “not an enforcement document.”

Among other things, the new guidelines would exempt as many as 100,000 vehicles per year from safety standards while AV technology is developing and being tested, as well as all but eliminate any waiting period or delay for testing and deployment to begin.

Since automated/autonomous driving is generally seen as an inevitability, the argument might well stand that undue governmental oversight in this area merely delays the inevitable, and that those industry players with skin in the AV game are natively incentivized to develop their technology with a safety-first mindset. After all, saving lives and reducing traffic incidents is what’s supposed to be so great about driverless vehicles, right?

On the other hand, recent history has shown, starkly, that big business simply cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of our populous (ahem, banking, ahem, lending institutions) without being tethered by regulations and enforceable practice restrictions.

So what is to be made of this? I wonder if some of the backlash is resulting from more or less everyone on either side of the aisle not caring all that much for Donald Trump, and seeing the need to take anything that comes out of his administration as requiring a veritable pillar of salt. If so, it’s a stance both justified and, frankly, asked for (if you ask me). But I also wonder would Anthony Foxx have approved of this sort of easing back with regard to safety, if it meant propelling progress and building business?

As we, the people, have a tendency to evaluate large, murky issues in terms of sound bites, it is a little tempting to chock it up to a rabbit vs. turtle dichotomy: Do we dash ahead, vigorous but with little control, or will slow and steady eventually win out?

I personally feel that safety should be paramount, and that is the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens even from their own desire and ability to progress, if that progress, for now, benefits a few at the potential hazard of many.

It’s not a lot to ask, killing the exemptions. If these companies want to get in the game, they’ll play by the rules. Just don’t give them a choice.


About the author: Budzynski is managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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