NHTSA Readies New Voluntary Autonomous Driving Database

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
nhtsa readies new voluntary autonomous driving database

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to release new guidance for automakers to make autonomous testing data available to the public. As you are no doubt aware, the concept of self-driving cars is losing steam. The industry finds itself confronting hurdles it never could have anticipated, slowing progress, while high-profile mishaps have shaken the public’s faith.

While polling has hardly been consistent (and often conducted by actors who frame the questions to get a desired answer), reputable outlets have shown us that public acceptance of self-driving cars declined over the past few years. The NHTSA would like to offset this by allowing regular folks to more easily track the industry’s progress, while encouraging a bit of competition among companies as they compare themselves to each other in a new database.

The NHTSA will unveil the Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (AV TEST) Initiative to provide an online platform for “sharing automated driving system on-road testing activities.”

According to Reuters, which had the inside scoop from regulators, the plan is to have a singular location where all data can be stored — including positional mapping of test-vehicle routes and real-time updates on incidents (either good or bad). However, like most of the Department of Transportation’s initiatives regarding vehicular autonomy, this one also sounds like will be wholly voluntary.

From Reuters:

Deputy NHTSA Administrator James Owens said in an interview that providing better transparency “encourages everybody to up their game to help better ensure that the testing is done in a manner fully consistent with safety.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Toyota Motor Corp as well as Cruise — General Motors Co’s majority-owned self-driving subsidiary — Uber Technologies Inc and Alphabet Inc’s self-driving company Waymo along with states including California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas are expected to take part, officials said.

NHTSA’s goal is to “pull together really critical stakeholders to deepen the lines of communication and cooperation among all of us,” Owens said, adding the effort was “an opportunity for the states to start sharing information among themselves.”

We’re of the mind that a few high-profile testing incidents (including a fatality) have done plenty to undermine autonomous acceptance, but it’s far from the only reason. Automakers spent years promising that self-driving vehicles were right around the corner, referencing self-driving aids as “semi-autonomous” features in their stead. Despite being major conceptual achievements, these safety features often underperform — and may even dilute the skill of attentive drivers by lulling them into a false sense of security. New tech always contains some shortcomings; these just happen to be glaring due to the industry’s ultimate goal of promoting total safety as we inch closer to SAE Level 5 (full vehicle autonomy) — which now looks to be much further away than originally suggested.

Anecdotally, we’ve seen a cadre of consumers losing interest as the ultimate form of motoring takes shape. A large portion of the industry is attempting to rethink what automobiles can be, and would like to see multimedia systems evolve to a point where they replace smartphones. This opens new doors as manufacturers scoop and resell personal data while simultaneously offering partnered advertisements and digital content to drivers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sound like the kind of cabin everyone wants to be in, and it requires self-driving to become a reality to achieve maximum effectiveness.

For some, the concept is the problem — not the execution.

Meanwhile, regulators remained transfixed on safety. And Owens has expressed that a more hands-on approach could be necessary if the industry isn’t on its best behavior. “We definitely want to make sure, first and foremost, that whatever innovation is occurring, that safety is baked into product design and safety is baked into the testing of the product,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), responsible for investigating autonomous crashes, has suggested imposing mandatory safety assessments already. It would also like to see some standardization among test vehicles in regard to fail-safe systems and sensory equipment. The NHSTA recently grew more accepting of those ideas, though its preference is to let the industry experiment freely, if it can do so in a safe manner.

Rolling panels will be held this week to see if that’s possible. In addition to established automakers and state leadership, the NHTSA plans to meet with various tech companies participating in autonomous development programs (parts, software, etc) and a handful of consumer advocacy groups. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out. We’re operating under the assumption that the industry will continue pushing for all regulation to remain voluntary and for rule makers to agree.

[Image: SAE]

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  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Jun 15, 2020

    "The industry finds itself confronting hurdles it never could have anticipated" The B&B here have anticipated these hurdles for years. "Meanwhile, regulators remained transfixed on safety. And Owens has expressed that a more hands-on approach could be necessary if the industry isn’t on its best behavior." Not really. If you're going to claim your AV meets SAE Level 5 autonomy, then the burden is on the mfr (and its team of lawyers) to prove that. No mfr will be stupid enough to field a product that *claims* to be Level 5, that isn't. Level 5 is a full-time commitment to the driver by the mfr. There can't be a switch to turn it off if conditions aren't right, because that's not Level 5 autonomy. IMO, safety issues won't be due to cheating, but due to insufficient tech to do the job under *all* conditions. And this is where the lawyers will put a stop to it.

    • Conundrum Conundrum on Jun 16, 2020

      Correct on all points. Nerds in labs who bussed into work and knew nothing about cars or dynamics, and were fed on free soda and tater chips to come up with autonomous cars in a couple of months were those who found themselves confronting hurdles they never could have anticipated. Normal people could see the problems coming a mile away. Baruth when he was editor and this place had some informed bite easily showed some obvious problems beyond the technical, real social ones as well. His what-if on how to send a stumblebum program into a tizzy by having humans stand in both front and rear of such a vehicle in a narrow ill-lit street at night to immobilize it remains the classic to me. Then you mug the occupants at will with a third ne'er do well. It was 2016 when the data plunderers Google, Alphabet soup Waymo or whatever they call themselves finally opened a lab in Michigan to conquer automation in snow. That didn't even make it through a half-inch dusting. Stick a fork in it. It's done for now.

  • Old_WRX Old_WRX on Jun 15, 2020

    One question I have is will Level 5 include the ability (so important to safe driving) to recognize vehicles that need extra attention -- driven by impaired individuals, not handling properly, dangerously loaded, aggressive? There is an intersection of two two-lane roads near where I live where I almost got creamed when I turned left in front of an oncoming car. I couldn't figure out how I had missed it until I took a closer look at the way that intersection is set up. Right after where I turned the road bends very gently to the right which can block visibility of oncoming card if there is a line of cars ahead of you going the same direction you are. I suspect something like this would likely fool most AV's. Of course, then again, it fooled me:-)

    • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Jun 16, 2020

      You would need connected cars (ADS-B for cars) in order for that to be safe. Systems in cars aren't flexible like a human and can't reposition themselves to "see" better in some circumstances.

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