They’re just guidelines and they’re toothless, but the contents of the Trump administration’s updated policy paper on autonomous vehicles are important for getting everyone on the same page so innovation can blossom. The rise of self-driving cars means more mobility options for those with disabilities, less commuter congestion, and fewer freeway fatalities, so the sooner it gets here the better. Such was the message from U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and other federal officials as they released Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety 2.0 at the University of Michigan’s Mcity test site in Ann Arbor this week. “We are going to emphasize safety, but we also want to preserve the creativity and the innovation that’s a hallmark of America,” Chao told reporters.
Officials were quick to point out that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will still have enforcement authority over safety-related defects in motor vehicles, and that includes those with emerging automated-driving technology. “NHTSA remains responsible for regulating the safety design and performance aspects of motor vehicles and motor-vehicle equipment. States continue to be responsible for regulating the human driver and vehicle operations,” the document reads. In other words, the federal government will handle safety issues; states will take care of licensing, registration, and insurance.
The 2.0 Vision is an update of and replacement for previous guidance issued a year ago by the Department of Transportation (DOT) during the Obama administration. Following a public comment period, this latest set of guidelines is meant to further clarify industry expectations and states’ roles. The guidance focuses on the SAE International Levels of Driving Automation 3 through 5, which denote conditional, high, and full automation. It’s worth noting that Tesla considers its Autopilot system to be at Level 2, which is partial automation, though this reportedly has been disputed by some industry experts.
The previous guidance called for developers of autonomous driving systems (ADS) to submit a safety assessment letter based on 15 key points, and NHTSA would then submit it to the public. The new guideline puts “much more onus on the industry to self-assess its own guidance, and put that out on its own,” said Nat Beuse, NHTSA’s associate administrator for vehicle safety research.
The new guidance document instead lays out 12 new “priority safety design elements for consideration,” which cover areas such as data recording, consumer education, crashworthiness, post-crash behavior, cybersecurity, and human-machine interface. Developers of ADS testing and deployment can refer to these safety elements in the voluntary guidance and then, if they want, submit a voluntary safety self-assessment. DOT officials said the new guidance avoids stifling innovation because companies do not have to wait for federal approval in testing or deployment of automated driving systems.
Similarly, states are not supposed to add any of this voluntary guidance to state statutes, the new policy says. The DOT says it wants to avoid a regulatory conflict between states and federal regulators. The new guidance itself may steer clear of regulatory conflict between states and federal regulators, but it remains to be seen what kind of effect autonomous-vehicle legislation making its way through Congress will have.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that could put driverless cars on the roads sooner, while prohibiting states from cracking down on autonomous-vehicle developers. Reuters reports the House bill would allow companies to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles without meeting current safety standards in the first year, and that cap would rise to 100,000 vehicles per year. It would also reportedly reduce states’ ability to regulate self-driving cars’ performance, leaving them instead to handle items such as registration, liability, and safety inspections.
A similar bill is making its way through the Senate. Chao said the updated, Vision 2.0 guidance “is in alignment with legislation that’s currently pending in Congress.” In any case, she also said it is “not a static document,” and said Version 3.0 is already in the works for 2018.
Vision 2.0 was generally met with applause from industry and mobility advocates, as well as derision from at least one consumer group. The nonprofit American Center for Mobility (ACM) said it was encouraged by the new policy. “We fully support the new guidance which is extremely well thought out, clarifying, and in alignment with the collaborative approach at the American Center for Mobility,” president and CEO John Maddox said in a statement. “I believe that issuing guidance rather than specific regulation is most certainly the best approach, especially as the development of these technologies is rapidly evolving.”
Consumer Watchdog was less enthusiastic. “This isn’t a vision for safety,” John Simpson, the nonprofit’s privacy project director, said in a release. “It’s a roadmap that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”