Automakers Asks NHTSA to Remove Autonomous Hurdles

automakers asks nhtsa to remove autonomous hurdles

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been pretty good about letting companies test autonomous vehicles on public roads. And yet pretty much every automotive manufacturer, ride sharing firm and tech giant still wants laxer rules. To a degree, it’s understandable. Take General Motors, for example. Back in 2017, GM sought exemptions from NHTSA to deploy fully automated vehicles without steering wheels or pedals, but that would have placed the car in clear violation of preexisting safety standards — as they were not in line with the General’s vision of what a self-driving car should be.

GM’s autonomous division recently said the self-driving Cruise AV it had been prepping for the end of this year will likely have to be delayed. While development issues assuredly played a role in stalling the car’s commercial deployment, it could never have launched as initially designed anyway.

Earlier this year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and NHTSA asked for input regarding the testing of automated vehicles to help decide if the “removal of unnecessary regulatory barriers” would be a prudent move. You can probably guess the feedback received from the automotive and tech industries.

The public comment period was designated to last until August 28th. According to Reuters, Waymo managed to get its statements in right at the buzzer.

“[The] NHTSA should move promptly to remove barriers while ensuring safety,” Waymo said in a letter posted on Thursday. “on the removal of unnecessary regulatory barriers to the safe introduction of automated driving systems.”

Among the barriers referenced by Waymo were seating configurations and the need for human operators. New seating templates would mean automakers can start converting interiors into mobile lounges while dumping flesh-and-blood drivers, opening up doors for automated taxi services and new distractions embedded into the dashboard of autonomous cars. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of hard evidence to support human drivers being any worse than automated systems. There is, however, an abundance of industrial marketing materials that suggest they will be someday.

There’s also the oddly pervasive idea that autonomous vehicles will allow literally anyone to move into the driver’s seat. In fact, the National Federation of the Blind has openly supported the development of autonomous vehicles for a couple of years now. But questions remain as to how the visually impaired would effectively operate an AV. While voice commands would be an ideal interface, it would have to perform impeccably to work, as would the car’s navigational abilities.

We’ve also heard claims that mobility solutions would allow people without licenses (which would include the blind) and even children to take solo trips. But this opens up a bevy of new of questions. Can people with no driving experience be made responsible for a motor vehicle? What are the legal ramifications?

Nobody has satisfactory answers, yet Waymo suggested the above hurdles must be removed if vehicles without controls are to be deployed in a “timely” manner. Other firms were only a few millimeters away from being in lockstep. They want new rules as soon as possible.

From Reuters:

General Motors Co in its comments said “it is imperative that NHTSA continue to drive this critical dialogue with a sense of urgency so that the necessary regulatory evolution keeps pace with advancing technology.”

Lyft Inc and Honda Motor Co told the agency in separate comments that it could recognize self-driving cars as a separate vehicle class to address the rules written assuming humans would be behind the wheel.

Numerous automakers have been more realistic of late. Both Ford and GM claim that introductory AVs would be aimed at getting you near your intended destination before dropping you off (in the case of cabs) or forcing you to take over (in the case of personal transport). Other automakers, like Fiat Chrysler, have been more relaxed in their pursuit of the technology. The brunt of FCA’s autonomous commitments revolve around supplying tech companies with platforms they can use to develop their own systems — with its own AV projects playing more of a supporting role.

The NHTSA intends to write rules regarding seating configurations and manual controls in March 2020, hoping to address the safety of passengers facing the side or rear or self-driving cars. Still, Waymo said seating was not an important factor when it came to “the deployment or development” of autonomous vehicles.

We’re inclined to agree. Chair positions are small potatoes in the bigger picture. That’s why the FMCSA’s notice requesting comments focused on ten items that had nothing to do with seating orientations. It’s concerned with the following:

  • Whether federal safety regulations should require a human driver
  • Minimum medical qualifications for human operators
  • How commercial driver license endorsements come into play
  • Hours-of-service rules for commercial AVs
  • Distracted driving and monitoring systems
  • Safe driving and drug and alcohol testing procedures/laws
  • Inspection, repair and maintenance rules
  • Roadside inspections
  • Cybersecurity issues
  • Confidentiality of shared information

Addressing even one of those items thoroughly would be a daunting task. Yet the United States will have to contend with all of them if it’s to deploy autonomous vehicles en masse. Sadly, the people making these rules also seem woefully out of touch with the technology. One issue is that a large portion of the information they’re being fed comes directly from the companies that are developing it. But there’s also a lot of technical information that has to be parsed through to even have a basic understanding of how these systems function, what obstacles they have yet to overcome, and how the development process works.

[Image: Waymo]

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2 of 28 comments
  • Robbie Robbie on Sep 01, 2019

    Maybe start with long-haul autonomous trucks that leave from big parking lots outside cities. As soon as weather deteriorates, they are forced to stop. For the first and last mile through a more urban landscape, a human driver takes over.

  • Buickman Buickman on Sep 02, 2019

    get a horse!

  • ToolGuy "We’ll see what happens with Haas." I wonder what happened with Haas?
  • ToolGuy Auction is 2 days away now. I've been setting aside some spare change here and there - have you? (You forgot again, didn't you?)
  • Luke42 I like the Metris quite a bit, but I never bought one.Two problems kept me from pulling the trigger:[list=1][*]It was expensive for what it was.[/*][*]For the price they were asking, it needed to have a plug for me to buy it.[/*][/list=1]I wanted a minivan that could tow, and I test drove one and liked it. The Mercedes dealer stocked both cargo versions and conversion vans. It was a nice vehicle, and I really wanted one for a while.This is the inevitable fate of cars that I like, but don't actually buy.
  • Garrett I would have gone for one of these if it had AWD. If they had offered it, it could have done far better.
  • Michael500 Sorry, EV's are no good. How am I supposed to rev the motor to impress girls? (the sophisticated ones I like).