NHTSA Advances The Ball (Or Wheels) On Automated Cars

In my last post here at Weil’s Product Liability Monitor, I wrote about Google’s self-driving cars and how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) agreed to treat Google’s operating software as the “driver” for purposes of NHTSA’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”).  I also discussed a number of FMVSS provisions that would be difficult to apply (or comply with) in the case of a vehicle that is not being operated, in whole or in part, by a human.  On the heels of my post, NHTSA just released a preliminary report identifying key challenges to the full deployment of automated vehicles.

The conclusions of the report, entitled Review of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”) for Automated Vehicles — Identifying potential barriers and challenges for the certification of automated vehicles using existing FMVSS, include:

  • Current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards do not explicitly address automated vehicle technology and often assume the presence of a human driver. As a result, existing language may create certification challenges for manufacturers of automated vehicles that choose to pursue certain vehicle concepts.
  • There are few barriers for automated vehicles to comply with FMVSS, as long as the vehicle does not significantly diverge from a conventional vehicle design. Two standards: theft protection and rollaway prevention (§571.114) and light vehicle brake systems (§571.135) were identified as having potential issues for automated vehicles with conventional designs.
  • Automated vehicles that begin to push the boundaries of conventional design (e.g., alternative cabin layouts, omission of manual controls) would be constrained by the current FMVSS or may conflict with policy objectives of the FMVSS. Many standards, as currently written, are based on assumptions of conventional vehicle designs and thus pose challenges for certain design concepts, particularly for ‘driverless’ concepts where human occupants have no way of driving the vehicle (e.g., §571.101, controls and displays, §571.111, rear visibility, §571.208, occupant crash protection represent a few examples).

Thus, perhaps not surprisingly, the more the vehicle differs from a conventional design (e.g., steering wheel, brake pedal, accelerator, etc.), the more difficult it will be to apply the current FMVSS.

In conjunction with the release of the preliminary report, NHTSA announced that it will host two public meetings to gather input as it develops guidelines for the safe deployment of automated safety technology.  The first meeting will be on April 8 at USDOT Headquarters in Washington, D.C.  The second meeting will be in California on a date and location to be published soon.

NHTSA’s press release noted that the meetings will gather information on a series of issues related to the safe operation of automated vehicles as part of NHTSA’s efforts to provide manufacturers with operational guidance.  Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was quoted:  “We are witnessing a revolution in auto technology that has the potential to save thousands of lives.  In order to achieve that potential, we need to establish guidelines for manufacturers that clearly outline how we expect automated vehicles to function – not only safely, but more safely – on our roads.”

The press release further explains that these “operational guidelines” are only one of five NHTSA initiatives, which also include:

  • President Obama’s budget proposal for a 10-year, $3.9 billion investment in advancing autonomous vehicle technology, including large deployment pilots in communities around the country.
  • Working with states to develop model state policy.
  • Using NHTSA’s existing authority to interpret current regulations, and offer limited exemptions from those regulations, in pursuit of advances that could increase safety.
  • Determining what new regulatory tools and authorities might be required to meet NHTSA’s safety mission in an era of rapidly changing technology.

As I have written about previously, technology has a knack for getting ahead of the law — and “self-driving” vehicles are just one of a long list of examples.  Auto manufacturers who desire to employ this technology have emphasized the need for clear and consistent regulatory guidance — and it appears that NHTSA is answering that call.

We will continue to follow this exciting topic and report on it here at the Monitor.