New U.S. Bill Would Update Automotive Rules, Allowing for Non-human Drivers

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
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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  • Turf3 Turf3 on Aug 24, 2017

    Every self-driving car should be required to have a large rotating red gumball light on top so everyone can tell which cars are which. Maybe they should also require painting in big diagonal yellow and black stripes too.

  • Oldguy Oldguy on Aug 24, 2017

    Someone please educate me what a great idea this will be in northern states, or the great frozen wasteland to the north which is Canada during the winter. Glare ice or 3 or 4 inches of snow should prove interesting. Tow hooks front and rear so a driver-less tow truck should help.

  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs
  • Sid SB Not seen a Core without the performance pack yet. Prefer the more understated look of the Core vs the Circuit, but both are great fun to drive.