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Facing safety questions, carmakers group suggests voluntary guidelines on automated vehicles

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation has an obvious motive, a critic says: It wants to put off the imposition of mandatory government standards.

The trade association representing most major automakers is offering guidelines for manufacturers to advertise partially automated driving systems and make sure drivers are paying attention while using them. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation says its members support the voluntary principles.
The trade association representing most major automakers is offering guidelines for manufacturers to advertise partially automated driving systems and make sure drivers are paying attention while using them. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation says its members support the voluntary principles.
John Locher / AP

The trade association representing most major automakers is offering guidelines for manufacturers to advertise partially automated driving systems — and to make sure drivers are paying attention while using them.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation says its members support the voluntary principles, which come as two federal agencies are increasing their scrutiny of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system after two men were killed in a fiery crash near Houston.

Such systems can keep vehicles centered in their lane and a safe distance behind traffic in front of them.

But Teslas on Autopilot have been involved in multiple crashes, including fatalities, in which neither the system nor the driver intervened. The Teslas have had trouble handling stopped emergency vehicles or tractor-trailers crossing in front of the cars.

Critics, including some legislators, have said the name Autopilot is deceptive, leading people to think that cars with the so-called automated driving abilities can drive themselves.

The alliance, which represents automakers including General Motors, Ford and Toyota, released the principles ahead of a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the future of automotive safety and technology.

The principles say that:

  • Any vehicle with such a system should have driver monitoring as standard equipment.
  • Cameras should be considered to make sure drivers have eyes on the road.
  • And the monitoring systems should be designed so they can’t be “disengaged or disabled” while the partially automated systems are working.

Cars should issue warnings and should take corrective action such as disengaging the automated systems or increasing the distance between vehicles if drivers don’t pay attention, under the guidelines.

The alliance includes automakers that account for about 99% of the industry’s vehicle sales in the United States.

Tesla is not a member. It’s not clear whether the Palo Alto, California, automaker would participate. Messages seeking comment were left for Tesla, which has disbanded its news media relations office.

The principles, shaped over the past year after discussions with the insurance industry, regulators and consumer groups, are aimed at raising consumer awareness about the limitations of robotic driving systems, said John Bozzella, the alliance’s chief executive office.

That effort includes dispelling any notion that the technology has advanced to the point that human intervention is no longer needed — something that Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive officer, has promised will soon happen with his company’s electric cars.

“There is no vehicle that I know of in the U.S. marketplace today that is a self-driving vehicle,” Bozzella said.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla, which has said its Autopilot driver-assistance system still requires drivers to be ready to intervene. But it continues to use the name Autopilot to market the technology, which the aoto industry says is misleading and critics say exaggerates its capabilities.
Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla, which has said its Autopilot driver-assistance system still requires drivers to be ready to intervene. But it continues to use the name Autopilot to market the technology, which the aoto industry says is misleading and critics say exaggerates its capabilities.
Susan Walsh / AP

Tesla has said that Autopilot is an assistance system and that drivers must be ready to intervene at all times. But the company continues to market its self-driving technology as “Autopilot” — the kind of misleading name the alliance is trying to discourage with its new voluntary principles.

Tesla’s critics have blasted Musk and the company for exaggerating the capabilities of its technology, which they say leads drivers to believe they don’t have to worry about taking control of the vehicle and even emboldening some drivers to climb into the back seat while the vehicle is navigating the road on its own.

“There is no question that high-profile crashes have raised consumer acceptance and consumer confidence questions,” Bozzella said. “System names and promotional material should not be misleading. Potential for driver misuse needs to be evaluated as part of the design process.”

Tesla uses sensors on the steering wheel to determine if a driver’s hands are there. But unlike most other automakers, Autopilot does not use cameras to make sure drivers are engaged. Critics say Tesla’s system can easily be fooled.

Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.
Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.
Provided

Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, questioned the automakers group’ motives ins suggesting voluntary standards.

“When industry talks about a voluntary standard instead of publishing and following one, which they could do at any time, it is mainly for the purpose of delaying a mandatory government standard and little else,” Levine said.

The alliance’s principles also come as two federal agencies — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board — investigate the Houston-area Tesla crash in which local authorities have said no one was in the driver’s seat.

Tesla has said the steering wheel was damaged, indicating a human was behind the wheel at the time of the crash, and that the seat belts were unbuckled.

Harris County, Texas, authorities say investigators are sure that no one was driving the car. One man was found in the front passenger seat, the other in the back seat.

NHTSA has sent investigators to 28 Tesla crashes, and 24 of the investigations are still active. The agency, which has regulatory authority over the auto industry, says that, with President Joe Biden now in office, it is taking another look at automated vehicle regulations.