WASHINGTON -- U.S. auto safety regulators unveiled Monday a voluntary effort to collect and make available nationwide data on existing autonomous vehicle testing.
U.S. states have a variety of regulations governing self-driving testing and data disclosure and there is currently no centralized listing of all automated vehicle testing.
California, for example, requires public disclosure of all crashes involving self-driving vehicles, while other states do not.
NHTSA introduced the Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing, or AV TEST, Initiative, to provide "an online, public-facing platform for sharing automated driving system on-road testing activities."
With many opinion polls showing deep skepticism among Americans about self-driving cars, the effort aims to boost public awareness. NHTSA plans "online mapping tools" that will eventually show testing locations and activity data.
“The AV TEST Initiative is a voluntary, nonregulatory partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation, states, local governments and private sector stakeholders in the automated vehicle community,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Monday during a virtual presentation.
“Through this initiative, the department is creating a formal platform for federal, state, local governments and the industry stakeholders to coordinate and share information in a standard way. This will help improve safety and transparency for the on-road testing of automated vehicles,” she said.
Deputy NHTSA Administrator James Owens said in an interview that providing better transparency "encourages everybody to up their game to help better ensure that the testing is done in a manner fully consistent with safety."
Nine companies and eight states have signed up so far, Owens said. That includes Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Toyota Motor Corp. as well as Cruise -- General Motors' majority-owned self-driving subsidiary -- Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s self-driving company Waymo. States expected to take part include California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, officials said.
John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, welcomed the program, saying public acceptance of AVs will be critical to successful testing and deployment
"The AV TEST platform will be a useful resource for the general public and policymakers to have greater insight into the testing underway on public roads,” Bozzella said in an emailed statement to Automotive News.
NHTSA's goal is to "pull together really critical stakeholders to deepen the lines of communication and cooperation among all of us," NHTSA's Owens said, adding the effort was "an opportunity for the states to start sharing information among themselves."
The agency will hold events this week to kick off the initiative, including panels featuring companies involved in autonomous vehicle testing such as Nuro, Beep, Waymo, Uber and Toyota.
Critics say NHTSA should mandate federal safety standards for automated driving systems.
The National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation of the March 2018 death of a pedestrian in a crash with an Uber test vehicle, the first attributed to a self-driving car, said in November that NHTSA should make self-driving vehicle safety assessments mandatory and ensure automated vehicles have appropriate safeguards.
Owens said NHTSA "will not hesitate" to take action if it believes unsafe vehicles are being tested on U.S. roads, but it has not adopted NTSB's recommendations.
NHTSA is also preparing to release later this year a preliminary outline of possible regulations that would set safety principles for autonomous vehicles, Owens said in the interview.
“We definitely want to make sure, first and foremost, that whatever innovation is occurring, that safety is baked into product design and safety is baked into the testing of the product,” he said.
The Center for Auto Safety argued the agency’s initiative doesn’t go far enough and should require all companies testing self-driving technology on public roads to submit safety information about those vehicles to the federal government.
The consumer advocacy group cited a 2018 petition to NHTSA asking the agency for a regulation that would require the collection of safety data for companies testing AVs on public roads.
NHTSA has not responded to the petition, the nonprofit group said Monday.
“In choosing to ignore the center’s petition, the call by individual citizens and the NTSB’s recommendations to mandate the collection of safety data from every AV manufacturer in every state, the current administration removes any doubt about their willingness to prioritize corporate wealth regardless of the consequences,” the group said in a statement.
“The center is in the process of looking to the judicial system to force NHTSA to respond to our petition,” it said. “We hope that branch of the government will respond before the next headline about a human tragedy because the executive branch currently is either incapable or unwilling to do its job.”
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety criticized the voluntary aspect of the initiative, calling it “a recipe for disaster.” The group’s president, Cathy Chase, called on NHTSA to develop minimum performance standards instead.
“Nonetheless, today the U.S. DOT is releasing yet another voluntary initiative on AVs,” Chase said in a statement. “The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
Audrey LaForest of Automotive News and Bloomberg contributed to this report.