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Chao Defying Law on Self-Driving Auto Test Funds, Lawmakers Say

November 6, 2018 Shaun Courtney
  • Millions of dollars for federal proving grounds go unspent
  • Transportation Department shuts down locations for program

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao ignored explicit congressional direction by shutting down a program to test self-driving vehicle technology at a handful of government-designated proving grounds, key lawmakers from both chambers say.

The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Transportation-Housing Appropriations subcommittees said in an Oct. 9 letter that funds had been provided in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending law to pay for the testing sites.

“Congressional intent was clear in supporting investment at Department-designated proving grounds,” Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R.Fla.) and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) wrote in the letter obtained by Bloomberg Government. The appropriations act (Public Law No. 115–141) directed the Transportation Department to spend “not less than” $20 million on the testing sites, the letter said.

Self-driving technology, developed by companies such as Google’s Waymo, Uber Technologies Inc., and Toyota Motor Corp., has raised questions about how to ensure public safety in the wake of several crashes. Federal money to support testing, including at proving grounds, could help create safety and performance standards, likely a lesser priority for industry, several legislative staffers and industry lobbyists said in interviews.

The Transportation Department designated 10 locations to encourage testing and information-sharing on automated vehicle technologies in January 2017—a day before Donald Trump became president. The department’s third iteration of the its automated vehicle policy, dated Oct. 4, ended the federal autonomous vehicle proving-ground program and said the sites would have no advantage in competing for future funds. Officials were silent on the $20 million during the public rollout and in subsequent media calls.

The Transportation Department “has not yet released that notice of funding availability, so is not in a position to discuss its contents at this time,” a spokesperson said in an email.

‘Full Lifesaving Potential’

“The Committees object to the Department’s decision to ignore such Congressional direction,” the lawmakers wrote.

“When it comes to research about how best to deploy this technology, we need an all-of-the-above approach that supplements research conducted by private industry, which may or may not enter the public domain,” Price said in an email to Bloomberg Government. “I expect USDOT to follow congressional intent and faithfully carry out this program.”

The proving grounds were meant to inform the department’s understanding of regulatory challenges associated with higher levels of automation and to teach the government what it would take to deploy self-driving technology safely, according to the 2016 request for proposals.

Disapproving Grounds

The appropriators’ letter responds to the Oct. 4 AV 3.0 document from Transportation and an Oct. 3 letter from Chao to the four leaders skeptical of the merits of the proving grounds.

Derek Kan, under secretary for transportation policy, told the Governor’s Highway Safety Association annual meeting in August, “outside the 10 U.S. DOT proving grounds, a lot is happening, and few of the designated proving grounds have shown any results,” ENO Transportation reported at the time.

The Transportation Department doesn’t want to pick winners and losers, Finch Fulton, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, told reporters during an Oct. 4 phone call just after AV 3.0 was released.

That isn’t how lawmakers see the issue. “Congressional intent was clear in supporting investment at Department-designated proving grounds,” they wrote.

About the Money

At the same time the department did away with the proving grounds, the agency’s self-driving vehicle policy document said much of the testing under way across the country is backed by “considerable private investment.”

While the agency didn’t reference the $20 million for proving grounds from the fiscal 2018 spending bill, it said it would be releasing a separate $60 million tranche of autonomous vehicle-related testing included in the same spending bill. But a month after the disclosure of the $60 million, the agency had yet to seek applications for the money.

In contrast, a notice about an unfunded National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pilot program also stemming from the AV 3.0 framework was published within a week of the framework’s release.

One place the government funds could have a role is helping to answer how best to measure safety, Amitai Bin-Nun, vice president autonomous vehicles and mobility innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) said in an interview. The private sector is focused on how to build and develop its technology enough to satisfy its board, said Bin-Nun, not on how to help regulators create industry standards.

“Federal investments in self-driving vehicles will help ensure we can achieve the full lifesaving potential of this emerging technology, and keep the United States at the forefront of innovation as other countries like China and South Korea continue to invest heavily in developing these technologies,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said in an email to Bloomberg Government. Michigan is home to one of the previously-designated proving grounds and Peters is a co-sponsor of a bipartisan Senate self-driving car bill (S. 1885).

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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