New U.S. Bill Would Update Automotive Rules, Allowing for Non-human Drivers
When the automobile came into its own, there wasn’t really a place for it. Roads had been reserved for foot traffic and horses for hundreds of years before the invention of the internal combustion engines. Pedestrian injuries were high until they were partitioned onto the sidewalk. Likewise, it was some time before the millions of horses were be rounded up, placed into a giant pit, and shot to death by 20th-century motorists.
However, the industry didn’t really take safety into account until Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed and holding automakers accountable for safety suddenly became fashionable — helping America pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 and subsequent legislation. Granted, vehicular fatality rates still fell dramatically between 1925 and 1965, but the regulatory influence didn’t skyrocket until after Nader’s analysis of the industry.
With autonomous vehicles positioned to change the way we “drive,” the long-established and ever-growing rulebook may need revisions. In July, a collective of automakers, suppliers, engineers, and consumer groups, calling themselves the Coalition for Future Mobility issued a statement urging Congress to consider legislation it deemed “critical to the United States continuing to be a place of innovation and development for the life-saving technologies.” Fast forward to August, and there is already a bill on the table.
The legislation, advanced by a House committee, would direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to update the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The bill is also aimed at allowing automakers to roll out more self-driving vehicles under expanded exemptions from some safety rules as revised regulations take form. The NHTSA intends to release updated guidance for safe deployment of automated vehicles in September.
As the Coalition for Future Mobility sees it, there’s a problem with the language used in the pre-existing rules — primarily ones relating to the driver. Currently, the NHTSA considers the system controlling the vehicle as “the driver,” but some of its rules are problematic. For example, safety standards stipulate that the brakes of all modern production vehicles be operated via foot controls. But feet are something computers are in short supply of and are unnecessary with a fully autonomous system. In fact, a lot of manufacturers want to reach a point where all human-oriented controls are optional.
A 2016 study by the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center references more than 30 instances where the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards could present serious compliance problems for autonomous vehicles with no human controls or with novel seating arrangements. But many, like yours truly, aren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of owning a car without a steering wheel — even a self-driving one.
This is a separate, equally complicated, matter. A report by the Rand Corporation from last year outlined how difficult it will be to reach a consensus on new rules because so many companies, consumer groups, and private citizens will be affected by the final decision. Likewise, testing procedures have to be decided and Rand Corp. says the NHTSA hasn’t been ahead of the game with autonomous systems. While the regulatory agency recently updated its new car safety ratings to indicate if a vehicle is equipped with crash prevention systems like automatic braking, it doesn’t evaluate them.
There’s no industry standard for even the most basic of autonomous systems, and that includes systems on vehicles currently milling around on public roads today. Rand specified that safety mandates will need to be evaluated based on how the array of sensors and artificial intelligence computers respond to the environment surrounding a car (but admitted even that would be difficult based on the myriad of variances to be accounted for).
“The basic problem here is one we’ve seen in a lot of industries — the technology moves a lot quicker than the regulation,” Elliot Katz, a partner at McGuireWoods LLP who chairs the firm’s automated vehicle practice, told Bloomberg. “Unfortunately, the rule-making process is not a short one, not a cheap one and is nothing short of labor intensive.”
This is why automakers and advocates alike are pressing the government to start the party and begin looking at the rules. Today’s limited road tests are fine and not in any danger of being shut down, but no manufacturer is going to risk entering into even the most modest of production efforts until those new regulations are in place.
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