U.S. DOT Introduces Automated Vehicles Policy

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To the delight of auto manufacturers and tech companies and the dismay of certain consumer and safety groups, the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced its much anticipated policy regarding automated vehicles.

Policies are targeted at highly automated vehicles, which are vehicles that “can take full control of the driving task in at least some circumstances,” according to DOT documents. The new policy is broken down into four components: vehicle performance guidance, model state policy, current regulatory tools and modern regulatory tools.

Although most of the policy is effective on the publish date, the DOT is seeking public comments at www.transportation.gov/av. Comments will be used to shape the policy over time as it will be updated annually.

Vehicle performance guidance for automated vehicles
The first section of the policy deals with manufacturers, developers and other organizations involved with HAVs before commercial sale. A 15-point safety assessment includes everything from testing to improved transparency.

Included in the assessment is a data sharing provision that allows regulators to access databases for information regarding crashes. A futuristic-sounding section called “Human-Machine Interface” addresses issues with drivers switching between autopilot and manual mode and how the vehicle communicates to pedestrians and other vehicles.

All classes of vehicles, including trucks and buses, are affected by the 15-point safety assessment. Vehicles using technology that completely takes over driving capabilities without continuous attention of the human driver are the primary targets of the assessment, but policies also apply to vehicles of lower technologies (e.g., autonomous vehicles such as the Tesla Model S).

Model state policy
States will maintain their responsibilities regarding vehicles licensing/registration, traffic laws, insurance, etc. Likewise, the feds will still control safety standards, recalls and public outreach about safety issues.

Although states retain power to give permission to manufacturers/owners to test and operate vehicles within the state, the DOT issued a model framework that will help keep consistency state-to-state. States are free to come up with their own policy, but federal officials are encouraging a more uniform approach.

Suggested state policies include law enforcement considerations; liability/insurance; registration and titling; drivers of deployed vehicles; policies and regulations traditionally set at the state level.

Current regulatory tools
This section explains which regulatory tools that are currently available the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can use when addressing automated vehicles. One such tool is a letter or interpretation, which allows NHTSA to explain how an existing law applies to automated vehicles.

Letters of interpretation can take several months to several years to be realized. However, NHTSA has streamlined the process for automated vehicles, which will provide responses in 60 days.

Another existing tool in the regulatory toolbox is the ability to allow exemptions. NHTSA can use the power with automated vehicles when applicable. Much like letters of interpretation, allowing exemptions can takes months or years. Again, NHTSA has modified the process to give a response within six months for simple automated vehicles exemptions.

A more common process used by NHTSA and transportation agencies is the rulemaking process. This could come into play if a manufacturer designs a never-seen-before vehicle or piece of equipment that cannot comply with current regulations, as is the case with certain automated vehicle technologies.

Modern regulatory tools
Limited to what it can do with current regulations, the DOT outlined possible new regulatory tools it can use to oversee the deployment of automated vehicles and relevant laws. Current law will allow the DOT to implement some of the suggestions, whereas other propositions would take an act of Congress.

The DOT is asking to allow NHTSA pre-market approval and pre-market safety assurance. Currently, manufacturers participate in a self-certification system that essentially puts them on the honor system. New authority could allow the government to inspect new technology before being granted certification.

NHTSA is requesting the authority to regulate post-sale software changes in automated vehicles. Recently, Tesla upgraded its autonomous function in certain models of vehicles already purchased by consumers. Such updates could potentially alter the certification granted during manufacturing. New authority will allow NHTSA to assess software updates before a manufacturer can make them available for download.

An increase in exemptions allowed is also being requested. Current law allows NHTSA to exempt no more than 2,500 vehicles per year for a two-year period for any given manufacturer. NHTSA is asking to increase that number to 5,000 vehicles per year for up to five years. An increase from 5,000 to 25,000 vehicles will allow for more efficient safety data, according to the DOT.

Lastly, NHTSA could have the authority to issue a cease and desist order in extreme cases such as the software on an automated vehicle going haywire. The safety agency is limited to how far they can go with recalls in the event a vehicle defect presents an imminent hazard.

Mixed reviews
In July, consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, along with two auto safety groups and former NHTSA administrator, reached out to President Obama to stop “undue haste” with legislation regarding autonomous vehicles. In a statement issued on Sept. 20, the advocacy group appeared to back down on its criticism and said the policy “heeded many concerns raised by safety advocates.”

“This isn’t the checkered flag to industry to irresponsibly develop robot cars that we had feared,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, in a press release. “It’s not a secret, cozy process with the manufacturers, but includes a real commitment to transparency and public involvement. The administration clearly heard the concerns raised by safety advocates and has addressed many of them.”

Also in July, another consumer group, Consumer Reports, issued a letter to Tesla to disable its automatic steering function. Consumer Reports was less enthusiastic about the new policy.

“Consumers need more than just guidelines,” Marta Tellado, the president and CEO of Consumer Reports, said in a statement. “This new policy comes with a lot of bark, but not enough bite. While these technologies have the potential to save lives, there must be strong federal standards to protect all drivers. We can’t just leave it to the states to do the hard work of deciding whether to let a self-driving car on public roads.”

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