Removing Regulatory Barriers to Safe Autonomous Vehicles


NHTSA Modernizes Vehicle Standards for New Technologies

Technology is all about innovation and that certainly holds true for the automotive industry and its quest to find new avenues to help eliminate human injury and death. Removing as much human error as possible is a huge part of this mission. So, as innovation goes, reallocating driving duties from human to machine may be a logical solution. As long as it truly is safer to do so.

In the U.S. we have the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that regulate our assessments of the integrity of vehicle safety. And with Active Safety, any new technology that assists or relieves human drivers of decision making must be deemed effective, accurate, and safe. But there are barriers to implementing these types of new technologies into commercial vehicles, primarily with the way our traditional passive safety regulations have been written.

dummies in AV

Actually, we don’t have much in the way of cohesive regulations that influence the development of self-driving cars, which is prompting NHTSA to release some new basic guidelines. On January 14th, 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a final rule (49 CFR Part 571, Occupant Protection for Vehicles With Automated Driving Systems) aimed at modernizing the current vehicle safety standards to help clarify occupant protection ambiguities for automated driving systems that omit manual driving controls while maintaining the existing requirements for traditional human driven vehicles.

Part of NHTSA’s strategy is to create a loose framework that will permit manufacturers to cultivate their own technologies instead of enforcing hard developmental policies.  A statement issued by James C. Owens, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, acknowledges the fact that “…the Federal Government is not an innovator in vehicle safety technology. NHTSA can mandate or ban existing technology, can create incentives for new technological innovations … But American families principally rely on automakers and others to conduct the research and make the investments in developing new technology that improves vehicle safety.” Removing barriers to new technology that can vastly improve occupant safety is imperative to NHTSA’s overall mission, but they also don’t want to enact legislation that is premature or ill-informed of the science.

Owen’s reflection reiterates the fact that the automotive safety industry can’t always wait for a regulatory body to endorse a new tool or technology before investigating it for themselves to understand the implications or benefits. For example, AV occupant protection will demand an anthropomorphic test device (ATD) that can accurately measure the risks and the protections afforded when faced with the prospect of new, unique seating positions within the vehicle cabin. With such radical changes to the zeitgeist of automotive travel, it’s now the duty of the industry to judge for themselves first so they can help model future regulation like never before and make it more profound and valuable. This is understandably a paradigm shift from the tradition archetype of leaving the legwork up to a federal agency.

To also help speed up the development of autonomous technology, NHTSA is making some exemptions for cargo-only autonomous vehicles (that carry no human passengers) from the applicable FMVSS rules, which have historically required the same in-car safety measures as passenger vehicles.

Some notable points of clarity that are addressed in the new rule:

  • Newly defined, new, modified, and relocated terms – e.g. driver side, passenger, outboard terms are clarified for these seating positions and the occupant protection requirements along with manually operated driving controls.
  • Spatial references that rely on the presence of a driver’s seat or manually operated controls – e.g. FMVSS regulations define spatial references to where test equipment such as test dummies must be placed with regards to a driver’s seat or steering wheel. Situations where there are no driver’s seat or steering controls are addressed.
  • Occupant-less vehicles – cargo vehicles without passengers can be exempt from passenger vehicle safety requirements
  • Amendments for FMVSS no. 208 – The emphasis is on defining vehicles without manual steering controls and seating in regards to traditionally specified driver’s designated seating positions (DSP) which will now be a passenger seats in autonomous vehicles. The left and right front outboard passenger seats are required to have the same protection using advanced air bags vs. traditional airbags.

NHTSA’s other intents are to initiate transparency and permit states to share research and to clearly articulate the differences between Automated Driving Systems (ADS) and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). These differences need to be clear to everyone until the automotive industry is finally ready to sell us its first passenger vehicle that can drive itself.

Of course, this final rule is only the beginning of many new measures meant to understand and help advance the promising new technology of autonomous travel.