The AV Industry Sends an SOS to Pete Buttigieg

The autonomous vehicle industry is in trouble and is looking for help from an unlikely source: U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

A coalition of lobby groups sent Buttigieg a letter last week imploring him to support AV development or risk being overtaken by China. The subtext, of course, is the crisis facing GM subsidiary Cruise, which recently grounded its fleet in the wake of a crash involving one of its self-driving cars.

The letter makes no mention of the situation with Cruise, but focuses on the looming threat of competition from China. Signatories include the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, which represents Cruise, Waymo, Zoox, Motional and others, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which lobbies for the auto industry.

“The ministry’s support for AV development is crucial to maintain our country’s competitiveness and secure our position as a global leader,” the groups wrote. “The US is at a pivotal moment in the AV race, with countries like China aggressively investing and advancing the technology.”

Self-driving cars are safer than human drivers “because they eliminate human errors such as fatigued, impaired and distracted driving,” the groups said. “The need to dramatically improve road safety has never been greater, and we must adopt an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy that includes AVs alongside other safety measures.”

The federal government has largely taken a back seat in regulating autonomous vehicles, leaving states to develop their own rules for safe deployment. Legislation that would dramatically increase the number of AVs on the road has been stalled in Congress for more than six years, with lawmakers at odds over a range of issues, including the number of exemptions from federal motor vehicle safety standards.

A possible stopgap called AV STEP was proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this year. This program could allow the agency to allow more vehicles without traditional controls, such as pedals and steering wheels, without reaching the annual cap on the number of exemptions. In her letter, the AV industry implores Buttigieg to initiate the regulatory process for AV STEP.

NHTSA had said it would begin the rulemaking process for AV STEP in the fall, although it appears to have missed that deadline. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment.

The Cruise situation has exposed serious trust issues with AVs. California regulators accuse Cruise of withholding video footage of his driverless vehicle dragging a pedestrian after a collision. (Cruise denies this.) GM CEO Mary Barra recently told investors that the company must “build trust” with communities, including first responders, before it can put its cars back on the road.

It’s hard to imagine Buttigieg or NHTSA continuing to embrace AVs at a time when public opinion on self-driving cars is souring. NHTSA has opened an investigation into the Cruise incident, and Buttigieg has publicly said the government must ensure AVs are safe before they are widely deployed.

Update December 13 1:03 PM ET: After this story was published, a USDOT spokesperson sent a statement in response to the letter.

“When automated driving systems are developed and deployed with the right safeguards and taking into account broader societal impacts, they have the potential to lead to better outcomes across the transportation system,” the spokesperson said. “However, these outcomes are not intrinsic or inherent to the technology. The net impact – on safety, mobility, emissions, workforce and otherwise – will be the result of technical, implementation and policy choices. This is why the Department’s approach focuses on key policy priorities and the position that safety is fundamental to unlocking the technology’s potential for wider positive impact. As technology develops, the Department will further develop its research and policy agendas to identify areas of economic benefit and risk, give workers a seat at the table in shaping innovation, and work to prevent harm to workers, expanding access to skills and training, and supporting pathways to good jobs.”

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