NHTSA Begins Regulatory Proceedings for Autonomous Safety, You Can Help

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Image: Tesla Motors

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Safety regulators with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said they were opening formal regulatory proceedings to establish new safety standards for autonomous vehicles on Thursday. However, before the NHTSA can get into proposing new rules that will influence how cars that can control themselves will be handled by the U.S. government, it wants citizens to offer their two cents.

We’re talking specifically about Levels 3-5 of automation as defined by SAE, meaning cars that could someday be sold without steering wheels or any other means to take control of the vehicle yourself. It’s something industrial lobbyists with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI) already have a roadmap for and plan on sharing with the NHTSA soon. Based on the group’s previous initiatives, we imagine it’ll be advocating the government leave as much control in the hands of manufacturers as possible. But you’ll have a limited window to weigh in on that position (or, better yet, share your own) while regulators have an open request for public comment.

Thus far, the NHTSA has been pretty lax in regulating autonomous vehicles. Safety protocols exist but they’re largely voluntary and its main goal appears to be seeing if a hands-off approach to the market will lead to swifter innovation. In Thursday’s announcement, regulators reiterated this point by stating it “has no desire to issue regulations that would needlessly prevent the deployment of any [automated-driving system]-equipped vehicle.”

“This rulemaking will help address legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation in the development of automated driving systems,” said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

The agency also warned that hastily decided standards could ultimately stifle innovation and solidify rules that don’t actually promote legitimate improvements to safety. What was not discussed, however, was how decisions might impact the ownership experience — something the industry has been thinking a lot about while it seeks a way to end the private ownership of automobiles with help from various governments.

But that’s long term, big picture stuff. The more immediate issues involve finding ways to ensure public safety, with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) being extremely critical of how regulators have been handling autonomous vehicle testing and advanced driving aids (ADS). It wants to see more regulation and safety redundancies that don’t allow modern technologies to encourage motorists to tune out. The NTSB has also been highly critical of the marketing language used to sell vehicles with advanced driving aids, suggesting they’re dangerously misleading and fool many customers into believing certain automobiles are capable of self-driving when they are not.

We’re inclined to agree with the NTSB but also hold onto fears that autonomous vehicles will mean the end of driving for enjoyment. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that the government isn’t overly concerned with prioritizing freedoms when it has safety in its sights. Formerly ridiculous concepts like forcibly limiting your speed or prohibiting an AV from taking certain routes now seem entirely plausible. Meanwhile, the industry will be vying for its own desires as it hopes to recoup the colossal financial losses incurred while attempting to develop autonomous cars.

“AVs can enhance roadway safety and increase access to mobility, and that’s why Auto Innovators applauds the Department of Transportation’s continued work to advance this important technology,” John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, stated this week. “In the coming days, Auto Innovators will release its own AV Policy Roadmap with additional recommendations for policymakers. Both of these announcements demonstrate the forward looking, positive steps being taken to create a regulatory framework to advance and govern this technology.”

The advance notice of proposed rulemaking was submitted to the Federal Register on November 19th, is available online, and worth a read if you have time. Those interested in participating in the regulatory process by giving the government a piece of their mind may go to regulations.gov and follow the online instructions to comment. Makes sure to use docket number NHTSA-2020-0106 to get your message sent to the right people, regardless of whether you’re using a digital or physical format.

Comments can also be faxed (202-493-2251) or mailed to the following address: Docket Management Facility, M-30, U.S. Department of Transportation, West Building, Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Avenue S.E., Washington, D.C. 20590.

[Image: Tesla]

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