NHTSA Releases Federal Automated Vehicle Policy

Increase in traffic fatalities prompts interest in preparing guidelines for federal and state policymakers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released policy guidelines for automated vehicles. Although NHTSA has communicated with the automotive industry and other manufacturers, states haven’t had policy guidelines for legislative or regulatory initiatives. These new guidelines should give some definition to the roles of federal and state policymakers and include Model State Policy.

The United States experienced 35,096 people killed in car accidents in 2015, which is an increase of 2,348 more than in 2014. This total represents a 7.2 percent increase over deaths in 2014 and the largest increase that NHTSA has recorded since 1966, when the number of fatalities rose by 8.1 percent over the previous year. Prior to 2015’s death total, there had been a nationwide, 50-year trend of declining traffic fatalities.

That increase has encouraged NHTSA’s interest in the safety side of automated vehicles, prompting the agency to comment:

“These innovations have the potential to transform personal mobility and open doors to people and communities – people with disabilities, aging populations [and] communities where car ownership is prohibitively expensive – that today have limited or impractical options. Automated vehicles may also have the potential to save energy and reduce air pollution from transportation through efficiency and by supporting vehicle electrification.

“But most importantly, we are encouraged by what we see as the next revolution in roadway safety. With more than 30,000 people dying on our roads every year, and with 94 percent of crashes tied to a human choice or error, we see great potential in the ability of automated technologies to save lives.

“Our road map is ambitious and challenging. The arrival of the automated vehicle may prove to be the greatest personal transportation revolution since the popularization of the personal automobile nearly a century ago. How many lives might be saved in a future with automated vehicles on the road? DOT is committed to finding out.”

Much of NHTSA’s policy proposal appears to try to ensure that states don’t get too far out in front of developing automated vehicle policy. It attempts to protect the traditional vehicle safety policy areas of the federal government, while clarifying the role of states. Clearly, there are many questions yet to be answered in this policy discussion.

Despite the November election results, the slim majority in the Senate will make implementing new authority for NHTSA complicated. Members of Congress interested in automated vehicle policy might struggle with the passage of comprehensive vehicle safety reform, including the specifics of automated vehicle policy.

NHTSA’s new policy for highly automated vehicles (HAV) consists of four key parts:

• Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles
• Model State Policy
• NHTSA’s Current Regulatory Tools
• New Tools and Authorities

I’ll discuss these in more detail here.

Vehicle performance guidance for automated vehicles

In these provisions, NHTSA outlines the best practices for the safe predeployment design, development and testing of HAVs prior to commercial sale or operation on public roads. Manufacturers will be required to provide safety assessments to NHTSA. These will cover 15 areas:

• Data Recording and Sharing
• Privacy
• System Safety
• Vehicle Cybersecurity
• Human Machine Interface
• Crashworthiness
• Consumer Education and Training
• Registration and Certification
• Post-Crash Behavior
• Federal, State and Local Laws
• Ethical Considerations
• Operational Design Domain
• Object and Event Detection and Response
• Fall Back (Minimal Risk Condition)
• Validation Methods

Separately, NHTSA has recently published Cybersecurity Best Practices for Modern Vehicles and encourages HAV manufacturers to consider these and other cybersecurity guidelines as part of its new HAV policy.

In addition, the Ethical Considerations section notes the importance of ethical “dimensions and implications.” In a recent interview at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford highlighted how auto manufacturers have to address the ethics issues assumed by the use of automated vehicles. How do these HAVs make choices about the important decisions any human driver has to make?

Model state policy

Left unchecked, many states will move forward with their own HAV policies. This complicates matters for multiple reasons because most states don’t have the technological expertise to determine important HAV policies and vehicle manufacturers cannot adjust technology to a patchwork of 50 separate regulatory guidelines.

Because some states already have passed legislation addressing HAVs, NHTSA encourages states to be responsible for four aspects of vehicle regulation:

• Licensing (human) drivers and registering motor vehicles in their jurisdictions
• Enacting and enforcing traffic laws and regulations
• Conducting safety inspections, where states choose to do so
• Regulating motor vehicle insurance and liability

What’s the federal government’s role? NHTSA should be responsible for:

• Setting Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment
• Enforcing compliance with the FMVSS
• Investigating and managing the recall and remedy of noncompliance and safety-related motor vehicle defects and recalls on a nationwide basis
• Communicating with and educating the public about motor vehicle safety issues
• Issuing guidance for vehicle and equipment manufacturers to follow, such as the Vehicle Performance Guidance for HAVs

In discussing the role of states, NHTSA recognized states’ administrative role in vehicle safety inspections. NHTSA referenced that states should be the lead in safety inspection, but “Each jurisdiction should examine its laws and regulations in the areas of: … (5) administration of motor vehicle inspections, in order to address unnecessary barriers to safe testing, deployment, and operation of HAVs.”

NHTSA’s current regulatory tools

NHTSA has four primary tools to review new vehicle technologies:

• Letters of interpretation
• Exemptions from existing
• Rule-makings to amend existing standards
• New standards and enforcement authority to address defects that pose
an unreasonable risk to safety

Future regulatory tools

NHTSA acknowledges in the HAV policy guidelines that the complexity of these new vehicle innovations threatens to outpace their conventional regulatory processes. NHTSA also takes a swipe at potential new regulatory tools.

To review the NHTSA Automated Vehicles Policy, go to ASA’s legislative website, TakingTheHill.com or NHTSA’s website, NHTSA.gov.