In September 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) brought forth the “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy” (FAVP) to help speed up the development and implementation of automated vehicles on our roadways. The policy – or, rather, “guidelines” – covers four areas:
1. Vehicle performance guidance for automated vehicles
- This section is really “the meat” of the guidelines, as it outlines best practices for the safe pre-deployment design, development, and testing of highly automated vehicles (HAVs) prior to commercial sale or operation on public roads. The key element here is the 15-point safety assessment, which NHTSA considered moving forward with rulemaking to make mandatory.
2. Model state policy
- Everyone wants to have some say, or no say, over automated vehicle testing – from the states to the feds. What this means is increased difficulty ensuring that there is a consistent national framework – state to state – to make it easier for consumers and manufacturers to design, develop, test, and build vehicles. We already have one state – California – that can develop and implement its own environmental policies. Needless to say, we don’t need 50 states with their own regs on vehicle development. Imagine how difficult it would be to run cross-country if the technology on your vehicle isn’t allowed in all the states along your route.
3. NHTSA’s current regulatory tools
- NHTSA will exercise its ability to use existing tools: interpretations, exemptions, rulemaking, defects, and enforcement authority. Bottom line: If the technology creates a hazard on the road, the Agency can force recall.
4. New tools and authorities
- To do its job effectively, the Agency needs new tools and resources, which Congress had to grant. Driving the request is the premise that the current regulatory approach of the last 50 years will be insufficient for next 50. Technology changes faster than the Agency can effectively regulate and, probably just as important, NHTSA doesn’t have the budget or the talent to really understand the new technologies.
(For more details on last year’s FAVP, check out the blog posts “Getting to Safe Autonomous Vehicle Applications – NHTSA’s ‘Federal Automated Vehicles Policy” and “Why Five?” on knowledge-dock.com.)
New year, new administration, and now it’s time for a new approach to the FAVP. Well, it’s not totally a new approach: The new “Automated Driving Systems (ADS): A Vision for Safety 2.0” policy borrows heavily from 2016’s FAVP, while also leaving a few things behind – like boosting NHTSA’s resources and capabilities.
This is probably not too surprising given that the current administration has adopted what appears to be a hands-off approach with regulations of any kind – safety or otherwise. And while no doubt there are regulations on the books that need to be dropped, leaving safety to the developers may not always be the best idea.
What do we get with the new policy?
Well, to start, a lot fewer pages to read. The original policy came in at a hefty 112 pages, vs. 33 pages in the new version. Not too surprisingly, then, there are fewer sections (two vs. four).
And what does this new text tell us? You really see the new administration moving forward on the notion that less regulation and oversight is more. In the new policy, the government appears to abandon its regulatory role when it comes to automated driving systems. While NHTSA does retain the right to recall unsafe vehicles and has a few other enforcement mechanisms up its sleeve, the watchword in ADS 2.0 is “voluntary.” (In fact, I think it’s the most used word in the paper.)
The last paragraph of the “Scope and Purpose” page really says it all:
- “This Voluntary Guidance provides recommendations and suggestions for industry’s consideration and discussion. This Guidance is entirely voluntary, with no compliance requirement or enforcement mechanism. The sole purpose of this Guidance is to support the industry as it develops best practices in the design, development, testing, and deployment of automated vehicle technologies.”
NHTSA doesn’t want to force anything that may stand in the way of getting this technology into the market as quickly as possible. That, in and of itself, is a good thing. It does, however, beg the question of who is going to be responsible for ensuring safety in the new automated age? The manufacturers? Hmmm … we’ve already seen more than one example of what happens when technology gets pushed out to an unsuspecting public before it’s ready or understood by the users.
In reality, there are plenty of good reasons not to overregulate, and the Agency should be applauded for not wanting to stand in the way of getting what may be truly amazing and potentially crash-eliminating technologies out to the market as quickly as possible.
But there are also just as many good reasons to have some regulations. After all, would you want to trust your loved ones in a driverless vehicle if the technology incorporated didn’t have to pass at least some type of performance standard to ensure it works – and has the fail-safes necessary if it doesn’t?
Overregulation is bad, but underregulation may be deadly. A proper balance is the answer. At a minimum, that balance should prove the technology works as promoted and that the appropriate fail-safes exist to ensure that if the technology fails, no one gets hurt. NHTSA should look back at the original policy and rethink what “voluntary” really means.
In the end, if NHTSA isn’t going to care about safety, who is?
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