NHTSA says safety won't take back seat to autonomy

November 10, 2016

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to wield its recall authority over autonomous vehicles and may seek the power to greenlight on-road tests and deployment.

The agency in September issued its first policy guidelines for "highly automated vehicles" that are responsible for monitoring the driving environment and can take full control of the driving task in some or all circumstances. The guidance applies to companies that manufacture or help to manufacture highly automated vehicles and aftermarket suppliers of related systems.

"Our goal is to build a safety culture into the early stages of this, not as an afterthought," Anthony Foxx, U.S. transportation secretary, said in September.

The voluntary guidelines apply to vehicles being developed with SAE International levels 3-5 autonomy, not the current Level 2 systems on vehicles that consumers can buy today. Recognizing that automated functions can straddle one or more levels, however, NHTSA suggests that most of the guidance should "generally apply to the full spectrum of automated vehicle systems," including Level 2 and lower systems that can perform some driver functions but rely on human drivers to be engaged in the driving task.

"We need to ensure that there is no gap in guidance for the systems that will dominate the market over the next five to 10 years before we get to higher levels of autonomy," says Adrian Lund, IIHS president. "Drivers don't fully understand the limits of Level 2 systems and why they need to pay attention to the road."

The four-part framework covers Level 3 and higher systems and outlines what recommended state policies should address, as well as the regulatory tools that NHTSA currently has and ones it might seek, including a premarket approval process for new systems and vehicles. Currently, NHTSA relies on manufacturers to self-certify that their vehicles meet federal motor vehicle safety standards and then conducts spot checks to ensure compliance. The agency could seek the authority to test vehicle prototypes to see if they meet safety standards before coming to market.

A 15-point safety assessment outlines expectations for manufacturers as they develop, test and deploy automated vehicle technologies in personal vehicles and ride-sharing services. Manufacturers are expected to self-classify their systems according to SAE's vehicle automation scale.

Autonomous vehicles will have to meet all applicable safety standards, including crashworthiness. As the agency notes, "manufacturers and other entities still need to consider the possibility of another vehicle crashing into them."

Manufacturers can apply for waivers. For example, all motor vehicles must have steering wheels, but some driverless cars under development don't have driver controls. The agency may develop new tests to address things like unconventional seating configurations to ensure that all occupants are protected. It acknowledges that federal regulations won't address all safety-related functions of highly automated vehicles during their initial rollout.

Although the guidelines aren't mandatory, NHTSA may codify some elements through a future rulemaking. In particular, the agency is asking manufacturers to voluntarily report how each system meets the 15-point safety assessment prior to testing or deployment on public roads.

They need to cover things like data recording and sharing, consumer privacy, crashworthiness, event detection and response and a fail-safe mode when a system malfunctions or otherwise can't operate. Other areas include system safety, human machine interface, consumer education and training, registration and certification, post-crash behavior, laws and ethical considerations, operational design domain and validation methods.

NHTSA also wants to know about software and hardware updates that would "materially change" how vehicles meet any of the safety assessment elements. The agency called on manufacturers to share data with regulators and the industry on crashes, system malfunctions, failures and cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities as the technology evolves.

In conjunction with the new guidelines, NHTSA released a final enforcement bulletin clarifying how it will apply its recall authority to automated vehicle technologies. Driving systems that don't adequately account for the possibility that a distracted or incapacitated driver can't retake control of their vehicle if needed may be deemed "an unreasonable risk to safety and subject to recall," the agency said.

While NHTSA will oversee automated vehicles and technology, states will continue to handle vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and insurance and liability regimes. Several states have issued guidelines on the types of roads and locations where companies can conduct tests and also if human drivers must be ready to take over manual control if needed.

"When operating via software, we intend to regulate the safety of that operation," Foxx said. "When a human is operating, state laws apply."

NHTSA urged states to evaluate their laws and regulations to address issues that could thwart safe testing, deployment and operation of highly automated vehicles. The agency envisions a move toward harmonizing state and federal laws for testing and operating these vehicles.

NHTSA pointed out the need "to standardize and maintain" signs, pavement markings and other road infrastructure to support automated vehicles and human drivers, "who will continue to operate vehicles on the roads for years to come."

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