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

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The new document provides non-binding guidance to industry and state regulators.

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.

“This new policy adjusts the tone but continues much of the substance of last year’s document,” according to Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

When I started covering self-driving cars for Ars almost a decade ago, I warned that a “combination of liability fears and red tape” could “cause the United States to lose the initiative in self-driving technologies.” But so far, that fear has proven to be unfounded. Regulators are so concerned about too much regulation holding back progress that they’ve bent over backwards to avoid imposing regulatory burdens on companies developing self-driving cars. The new Trump administration guidance is just the latest sign of that hands-off approach.

The document asks self-driving car makers to consider 12 big questions as they develop self-driving cars. These include what environments the vehicle can operate safely in (freeways, residential streets, rural roads), how vehicles can safely recover from errors (for example, by pulling over to the side of the road), how to validate vehicle safety (for example, with simulation and track testing), and how to ensure cybersecurity.

Caleb Watney, a self-driving vehicle researcher at the free-market R Street Institute, says that this is a pared-down version of a 15-point list found in the Obama guidance a year ago. The Trump administration dropped a few items—like privacy protections—but took the same basic approach.

And while the guidance is purely optional now, the list could still become significant, because Congress is considering legislation that could make it mandatory for companies to consider these factors.

Even if that legislation passes, however, the regulatory burden here would still be rather light. Manufacturers would have to submit a “safety assessment certification” that lays out how they expect to deal with these issues, as well as data demonstrating that the vehicles can operate safely. Yet the manufacturers would still have a lot of discretion to decide how to define and measure these factors. And federal regulators would not have the authority to block deployment of self-driving vehicles based on the contents of these certifications.

Watney told Ars that, beyond the Trump administration’s generally deregulatory philosophy, there are two other reasons the Trump administration hasn’t been more active about crafting new self-driving car regulations.

One is that Donald Trump still hasn’t named an administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency responsible for Tuesday’s guidance. That means major NHTSA decisions are being overseen by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who is “being pulled in a million different directions,” according to Watney. Chao oversees several agencies besides NHTSA, which is why NHTSA is supposed to have a full-time administrator. With that seat vacant, NHTSA is struggling to do a thorough job shaping autonomous vehicle policy.

NHTSA may also be waiting for more guidance from Congress. The House of Representatives passed self-driving car regulations earlier this month, and companion legislation was unveiled in the Senate on Monday. Trump administration officials may be waiting to see if Congress changes the rules NHTSA is enforcing before NHTSA puts too much effort into tweaking its implementation of those rules.

While this hands-off approach is favored by most Republicans and some Democrats, other Democrats aren’t so excited about it.

“Instead of focusing on safety and ensuring car makers are properly testing these vehicles, the administration chose to cave to industry and pressure states into not acting,” wrote Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in a comment e-mailed to Ars. The pair urged Congress to pass legislation beefing up safety standards for self-driving vehicles.