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What NHTSA’s Guidelines Mean for Self-Driving Cars


Self-driving vehicles have already logged millions of miles in the U.S. Google testing alone has covered more than 1.5 million miles across four states.

But despite this success, questions remain about the safety of self-driving cars and who is responsible for oversight, regulations and standards. In September the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency that oversees motor vehicle and highway safety, provided some clarity and guidance that helps answer these questions.

One of the primary issues the NHTSA guidance aims to address is the division of responsibilities between federal and state governments. Through a Model State Policy, NHTSA explained it has jurisdiction when 1) the car is the driver and 2) fully self-driving vehicles do not require a licensed driver, while states are responsible for regulating when a human driver is present. This means that as more and more driving tasks are performed by the vehicles themselves, the federal government’s share of oversight will increase.

Hints of greater oversight are seen in NHTSA’s proposed pre-approval authorization authority, a major departure from the current system of manufacturer self-certification. A new regulatory approval process could cause delays in getting new vehicles to market, if NHTSA needs to approve every model and model year vehicle. The agency is now seeking industry feedback, and any subsequent changes would require Congressional approval.

The new guidelines also include a 15 Point Safety Assessment to help NHTSA and the public evaluate how manufacturers and other entities developing and testing self-driving systems are addressing safety throughout the process. The assessment, completed by the equipment manufacturers, covers areas including data recording and sharing, privacy, human-machine interface and object and event detection and response.

Another signifi cant issue in the dialogue about self-driving cars is ethics. These vehicles will have to make decisions about what to do based on data they receive from cameras, sensors and other technologies. A miniscule portion of those decisions may occur in “dilemma situations,” where the vehicle may need to protect the safety of one person at the cost of another. The NHTSA guidelines recommend algorithms for resolving conflicts developed using input from a range of stakeholders including regulators, drivers, passengers and other road users.

The auto industry is on the verge of a revolution – technology holds the power to transform our transportation networks.

And the federal government recognizes the potential mobility benefits of driverless cars for seniors and people with disabilities. Thus, the policy framework from NHTSA is a living document that needs to be updated yearly, providing the flexibility needed to respond to new innovations quickly.

Izzy Santa, CTA

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