Over the last half century, automakers have built vehicles to meet federal safety standards, and U.S. regulators largely enforced those standards once cars were sold to the public. But the advent of autonomous technology radically changes everything from vehicle design, including doing away with the steering wheel and pedals, to defining who is actually doing the driving, a human or software.
Because of this seismic shift, federal auto safety guidelines not only have to be altered to accommodate automated technology, but also to anticipate the changes ahead. That’s why the long-awaited U.S. DOT guidelines for autonomous vehicles unveiled today mark a sea change in how the federal government will approach the groundbreaking technology and also reveal a more proactive role by auto safety regulators and greater cooperation with automakers and others in the space.
Ahead of the release of the guidelines, federal officials said yesterday that automakers will be asked to voluntarily assess and submit to the DOT the design, development, testing and deployment plans for autonomous vehicles before they can be offered for sale or put into service on public roads. “The policy improves upon traditional U.S. auto regulation which relies on post-sale enforcement based on safety standards that can take many years to develop and traditionally are only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a conference call with media yesterday ahead of today’s release of the autonomous vehicle guidelines.
Automakers will be asked to provide documentation on 15 different topics, including how autonomous driving systems detect objects, how information and alerts are displayed to drivers, testing and validation methods used to develop the technology and also cybersecurity measures. “We have to have a level of confidence that each one of the 15 has been independently reviewed, evaluated and confirmed.” Foxx said.
“This automated-vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as DOT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front end of development,” Foxx added. “It’s really creating a more open-ended type of approach than we typically would.”
As part of its autonomous-vehicle policy, the U.S. DOT has also eliminated its automated-vehicle classification system and will adopt the five-level scale developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The new guidelines would encompass all vehicles with an SAE Level 3 automated driving system or higher, which can provide full autonomy without human intervention in certain situations. NHTSA will also ask automakers for assessments of their Level 2 vehicles that combine two or more automated driving functions, such as lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control but require drivers to control steering.
The policy will largely take effect starting today and NHTSA said it will begin asking automakers and others for their safety assessments in the coming months. Since the technology that the guidelines cover is already in many existing vehicles, NHTSA said it would work to expedite requests for exemptions from the standards.
Automakers and others developing self-driving vehicles such as Google, Uber and Lyft have been calling for blanket federal policy to supplant a growing patchwork of state regulations. During yesterday’s call Foxx discussed how the federal government and states would cooperate on the regulation of automated vehicles. He noted that under the new guidelines states would continue to manage licensing drivers, registering vehicles and regulating insurance, while federal officials would work with states to consider how to balance jurisdiction of testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles.
The U.S. DOT also recognized that quickly evolving automated-driving technology requires regulators to change how they approach policymaking. “Typically, we’d say a car has to meet ‘X’ standard a certain way,” Foxx said. “We recognize that there’s going to be different types of innovation that come to us, and we plan to evaluate each on its own terms.”
Carmakers and others were cautiously optimistic about the new federal guidelines and the DOT’s flexible approach to the technology. Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in an email that the federal guidance “is the right action to take since the technology is developing quickly and collaboration between automakers and NHTSA is critical to avoid policies that become outdated and inadvertently limit progress in reducing the number of crashes and saving lives.”
The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an industry group made up of Google, Ford, Volvo, Lyft and Uber, said in an email that the “operating guidance will help create the foundation necessary to inform industry and future regulatory and legislative efforts. We believe guidance from NHTSA is crucial to achieving these goals as it recognizes the challenges specific to regulating a new technology.”
“Flexibility and innovation must also be preserved as this entirely new form of transportation comes to market,” Joe Okpaku, vice president of government relations for Lyft, said an email. “Much work remains ahead, but NHTSA’s guidelines are a step in the right direction.”
Originally published by Forbes.com