The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has unveiled a new federal policy that purports to ease the process for manufacturing, testing and deploying self-driving or autonomous cars in the U.S. The DOT established guidelines prioritizing safety and discouraging states from drafting potentially conflicting self-driving car rules of their own. The policy, which is called the Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety 2.0, lays out voluntary guidelines for automakers and technology companies to consider and design best practices to more quickly develop highly automated vehicles and get them ready for highways in the United States.
You will recall that recently the U.S. House of Representatives passed first-of-its-kind legislation intending to make it easier for automakers to manufacture and test autonomous or self-driving cars on U.S. highways. The obvious purpose of this legislation was to assure industry stakeholders that the federal government would be in complete control on automated car safety standards.
According to Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, the policy is meant to serve as a guidance document that is purposefully flexible and is not intended to serve as a regulatory document or provide mechanisms for enforcement. Secretary Chao says the document preserves NHTSA’s broad enforcement authority over traditional cars, as well as automated driving systems (or ADS).
Specifically, NHTSA’s enforcement authority concerning safety-related defects in motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment extends and applies equally to current and emerging ADS, according to the DOT. Let’s take a look at the two sections:
• The first section of the document focuses on giving car makers voluntary guidance on what to include when developing or testing their automated driving systems, especially for those that have what’s defined as SAE Automation Levels 3 through 5, which are conditional automation, high automation and full automation. These are the levels in which drivers can take more of a back seat to the operating and driving functions that the car itself can take over.
• Section 2 of the document clarifies the federal and state roles when it comes to regulating automated driving systems. It makes clear that NHTSA will still be responsible for regulating the safety design and performance aspects of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, while states will continue to be responsible for regulating the human driver and vehicle operations, the DOT said. The section also provides best practices for state legislatures to consider when coming up with their own potential rules and regulations for how to safely operate highly automated vehicles on public roadways. The section addresses such things as applications and permissions to test, registration and titling, working with public safety officials, and liability and insurance.
It appears that the automobile industry is highly pleased with the steps the federal government has taken. The Auto Alliance, also known as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the leading advocacy group for 12 of the largest car manufacturers, said in a statement that automakers have been developing self-driving technologies for years, recognizing the tremendous potential for enhanced safety and greater self-sufficiency for certain populations. The Auto Alliance said:
This federal guidance is helpful in advancing road safety and safe testing, while also providing more clarity on the role of states. The guidance provides the right balance, allowing emerging innovations to thrive while government still keeps a watchful eye over new developments.
I believe there will be some major safety issues that come along with these self-driving vehicles. A recent incident is a case in point. Companies developing semi-autonomous vehicles should find better ways to identify when a driver is not actively paying attention to the car’s surroundings. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made that observation, finding that a Tesla driver’s over-reliance on his car’s automation contributed to a fatal Florida crash.
NHTSA’s guidance is entirely voluntary, and it doesn’t carve out any compliance requirement or enforcement mechanism. It should be noted that the new guidelines are just that – nonbinding guidelines. Hopefully, safety will be the top priority for all that the government is doing in this arena.
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