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As Ford makes driverless push in city, District seeks standards on safety, environment

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Ford executives described ways they plan to work together on the driverless vehicles project. (Michael Laris/The Washington Post)

District officials are pushing Ford to meet new standards on cybersecurity, safety and pollution as the Big Three automaker works to open driverless transportation and delivery businesses in the nation’s capital in 2021.

Such city-level standard-setting might be restricted if driverless legislation being considered in Congress becomes law, experts said. Federal regulators also could seek to limit what their local counterparts can do.

But for now, District officials say they will work to shape — through requirements or strong suggestions — what they consider their ideal rollout for self-driving vehicles.

“D.C. currently has this authority. In the future, they might not,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina who has worked with states on self-driving law and policy.

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Ford executives have made their spirit of cooperation — with the District and other cities where it will deploy self-driving cars — a big part of their pitch for why the company should be seen as a trustworthy, long-term partner as traditional transportation networks are upended by technology.

On Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the chief executive of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, Sherif Marakby, also described ways they plan to work together to achieve the city’s socioeconomic goals as part of the driverless project.

Ford agreed to work with Bowser’s Infrastructure Academy, a workforce training initiative, to offer “two training pathways to jobs,” Ford spokesman Alan Hall said. One would be “a pipeline to become a safety operator” in self-driving cars that will begin testing on District streets starting early next year.

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That would include classroom work, as well training in the vehicles on closed courses and public roads, Hall said.

The second opportunity would be an “auto technician course that would be a pipeline to work with a Ford dealer,” Hall said.

Neither the District nor Ford were specific about how many people might be involved with such training.

At an event to announce the driverless partnership with Ford at the city’s Southwest Waterfront on Monday, Bowser said she became concerned several years ago that the city was falling behind in the push to deploy autonomous vehicles.

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Asked about potential safety problems — given the death of a pedestrian hit by an autonomous Uber in Tempe, Ariz., in March, and lingering questions about the technologies and oversight of the companies developing them — Bowser acknowledged the concerns.

“I’m sure everybody was concerned when the automobile was introduced, when we had streetcars,” Bowser said. “When we test any new kind of transportation, there’s always going to be a concern about how safe it can be, and how safe it is, and how we can make it even safer.

“What people don’t typically say is, I wish there was a time when there was no automobile — maybe some people say that — or there wasn’t worldwide air travel where we can easily connect with each other,” she said.

Bowser said that in a growing city, officials and residents need to explore all sorts of transportation options. And that’s what will happen as Ford and its partner, self-driving start-up Argo AI, work to build a detailed 3-D map of the city, try to understand how people interact with area roadways and vehicles, and then begin testing driverless cars with safety monitors behind the wheel.

Last week, mapping specialists from Argo AI, which Ford is backing with a $1 billion investment, began driving autonomous Ford Fusion hybrids, in manual mode, through Northeast Washington as part of the mapping project.

“We’re going to be very interested in what the test phase shows, to see if it’s something that works for our city,” Bowser said. “Now it is possible we’ll find it’s not a fit with our city, and that’s what this test phase is all about.”

Matthew Raifman, a senior manager on Ford’s City Solutions team, said “there’s no reason to think that’s where we’re going,” noting that the reception to Ford’s approach and work with the city has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

District government documents make the city’s oversight aspirations clear.

After months of discussions, the city’s interagency Autonomous Vehicles Working Group, formed earlier this year, produced an “Autonomous Vehicles Principles Statement” describing its key priorities.

It says the D.C. government “should require that AVs be equipped with a minimum of industry standard cybersecurity technology.”

The vehicles “should help reduce the carbon footprint of the District, and limit other forms of transportation-related pollution,” it continues.

In addition, self-driving cars “should only travel on streets where they can operate without putting people at heightened risk.”

And, data generated during driverless projects in Washington should — as long as privacy, security and trade secrets are protected — be shared with the city. Such “requirements for data sharing should be built into regulations and partnerships,” according to the principles statement.

Officials were also questioned about California’s requirement that companies disclose self-driving crashes, even minor fender benders, when they occur.

Brian Kenner, the District’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said that issue is being considered by the working group.

“It’s great that we have Ford as sort of our first guinea pig to be able to talk about the information we want to receive,” Kenner said.

Raifman said that whether it’s addressing environmental issues, cybersecurity concerns or the District’s focus on safety and other matters, “our intention is to do right by the city, and more importantly, by the residents of the city.”

“I don’t see any issues there in the way they’re laying it out,” Raifman said, although the company has not discussed many of those specifics yet with the city and executives want to make sure they understand the intent behind what the District is asking.

And “if there’s an issue with compliance and a compelling reason why it would be challenging to report” something, Ford hopes city officials will use that feedback “to inform their guidelines,” he said.

“It’s a voluntary, willing partnership. We’re voluntarily engaging them and they’re voluntarily engaging with us,” Raifman said. “We want to make sure that all parties are happy with the way it’s going.”

And where things may not be voluntary — as the city pursues legal and regulatory requirements in the years to come — the District may hit possible federal limits on its authority.

A bipartisan Senate bill introduced last year would block local governments from regulating “the design, construction, or performance of” autonomous cars, for example.

The Senate legislation is stalled, with some lawmakers expressing concerns about sidelining state and local governments. Proponents say the legislation is needed to prevent a mishmash of local regulations, and Senate supporters say they are still pushing for a vote.

“In its current form, that legislation would prevent state and local authority over every design issue, and maybe even then some,” Smith said, citing the potential to affect cybersecurity, data and other issues. “Those could all be withdrawn from the states.”