Lax U.S. oversight of industry jeopardizes public safety

August 7, 2018

A patchwork of state laws and voluntary federal guidelines is attempting to cover the testing and eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles in the U.S. It is a decidedly pro-technology approach that lacks adequate safeguards to protect other road users.

"We don't want to hamstring the development of autonomous vehicles but do want to ensure that all motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians sharing the road are protected," says David Harkey, IIHS president.

"The industry needs to take precautions when operating experimental vehicles on public roads and should share data on crashes, near-crashes and system disengagements with the public," Harkey says.

Beyond issuing policy guidelines (see "NHTSA says safety won't take back seat to autonomy," Nov. 10, 2016), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't attempted to regulate self-driving vehicles. At the time of this writing, legislation regarding their development, testing and deployment was stalled in Congress.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE Act in September 2017, but the Senate version, dubbed the AV START Act, is on hold. The act would pre-empt state laws on autonomous vehicles and drastically lift caps on the number of vehicles sold each year that can be exempt from federal safety standards.

A broad coalition of consumer and safety advocates has appealed to Senate leaders not to advance the bill until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigations of recent fatal crashes. They say the bill lacks comprehensive safeguards, sufficient government oversight and industry accountability.

The coalition calls for the bill to limit the size and scope of exemptions from federal safety standards, provide for adequate data collection and consumer information, apply safety critical provisions to Level 2 systems, boost funding for NHTSA, ensure access and safety for people with disabilities, and maintain state and local regulations absent federal rules on automated vehicles.

At the same time, an industry coalition of automakers, suppliers, tech firms and other groups is urging swift passage of the bill in the name of safety and mobility.

States forge ahead

As of August, 31 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation or taken executive action on automated driving. The laws in 11 of those states authorize a study, define key terms or authorize funding.

Nine states authorize testing, while 11 states and D.C. authorize full deployment. Some states impose substantial restrictions on operators developing, testing and deploying driverless cars on public roads, while others welcome testing and deployment with little legislative or regulatory burden/impediment.

For example, four states require the operator to carry at least $5 million in insurance or surety bond while testing or deploying automated vehicles on public roads. Six states and D.C. authorize testing or deployment without imposing any special financial requirements.

California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington require operators to share a safety plan or assessment and/or some level of data, such as disengagement reports or incident records, with the state regulator. California, Nevada and Pennsylvania also require a testing permit, while New York requires testing under  state police supervision.

Laws allowing the operation of automated vehicles initially required a human operator to be present and capable of taking over in an emergency. However, 12 states — Arizona, California and Michigan among them — allow testing or deployment without a human operator in the vehicle, although some limit it to certain defined conditions. Nine states don't always require an operator to be licensed.

Crash data should be public

IIHS has encouraged regulators to require companies to share information about every crash and disengagement of an automated driving system that occurs during testing on public roads.

IIHS has called on states to advise companies to share this information for every crash involving a vehicle with driving automation when operating in manual mode or automated mode, regardless of severity, and to publicly share the collected data.

"While disengagements of automated driving systems are not as safety-relevant as crashes, they can provide key information concerning the performance and limitations of the technology," IIHS told the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

As fully autonomous vehicles deploy, knowing which ones are equipped with automated technology — and which are exempt from federal safety standards — will help policymakers, insurers and researchers understand the safety impact.

To that end, IIHS strongly advises NHTSA to create and maintain a nationwide public database of vehicles with automated driving systems and those exempt from safety standards that is indexed and searchable by vehicle identification number (VIN). Currently, VINs aren't required to encode information about optional crash avoidance and automation features.

Automated driving laws as of August 2018
Some states impose substantial restrictions on operators developing, testing and deploying driverless cars on public roads. Others welcome them with few restrictions.

New regulations needed

So far, NHTSA has focused on removing regulatory barriers to enable automated driving. The AV Start Act as proposed would require the agency to update the human-specific safety standards to account for self-driving vehicles. Currently, NHTSA grants exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

For example, by law all passenger vehicles must have manual driver controls, but what happens when human drivers are no longer needed to operate vehicles?

General Motors, for one, hopes to ditch the steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals in a self-driving Cruise AV to test in a ride-sharing fleet. GM petitioned NHTSA to exempt up to 2,500 of these electric cars from more than a dozen safety standards, including the manual control requirements.

As it weighs which regulations to amend, NHTSA also should consider new ones to ensure that automated driving is safe for all road users. Recording vehicle data is one area that needs to be addressed.

IIHS has asked the agency to require event data recorders to encode information on the performance of automated driving systems in the moments before, during and after a crash. This information would help determine whether the human driver or vehicle was in control and the actions each entity took prior to the event.

In addition, autonomous vehicles should be programmed to take themselves out of service when the status of critical vehicle systems can't support a safe trip.

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