NHTSA: Self-Driving Vehicles No Longer Need Human Controls

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued final rules that eliminate the need for automated vehicle manufacturers to equip fully autonomous vehicles with manual driving controls to meet crash standards, Reuters reports. In other words, there’s no need for autonomous vehicles to have steering wheels, pedals, or other human controls if they are fully autonomous.

This is something that automakers and tech companies have been facing challenges with, particularly since it just adds cost to vehicles that are still too costly for the services provided.

Cruise autonomous car concept without steering wheel. Image courtesy of GM.

One automaker, General Motors, and its self-driving unit cruise, petitioned the NHTSA just last month for permission to build and deploy a self-driving vehicle without human controls — without a steering wheel or brake pedals.

The agency published a rules revision of the regulations — a 155-page document that assumes that vehicles “will always have a driver’s seat, a steering wheel and accompanying steering column, or just one front outboard passenger seating position.”

“For vehicles designed to be operated by an ADS, manually operated driving controls are logically unnecessary,” the NHTSA noted.

In a press release, the NHTSA said that before this week’s updated rules, occupant protection standards were written for common, traditional vehicle features. These included steering wheels and other manual controls. The new rules have updated the standards to clarify what the agency requires from manufacturers when applying the standards of ADS-equipped vehicles that don’t have traditional manual controls.

“The final rule clarifies that, despite their innovative designs, vehicles with ADS technology must continue to provide the same high levels of occupant protection as current passenger vehicles.

“This rule is part of NHTSA’s ongoing efforts to ensure the public’s safety as vehicle automation evolves. NHTSA is actively engaged in monitoring and overseeing the safe testing and deployment of these vehicles. NHTSA’s approach to advanced vehicle technologies prioritizes safety across multiple areas, including data collection and analysis, research, human factors, rulemaking and enforcement.

“Last summer, NHTSA issued a Standing General Order requiring crash and incident reporting for vehicles equipped with ADS or certain advanced driver-assistance systems. This reporting will help NHTSA investigators quickly identify defect trends that could emerge in these automated systems.

“In addition, NHTSA initiated rulemaking last year to set safety standards for automatic emergency braking, a driver-assistance technology that can help avoid crashes with other road users, including pedestrians.”

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg gave the following statement:

“Through the 2020s, an important assistance part of USDOT’s safety mission will be to ensure safety standards keep pace with the development of automated driving and driver systems.

“This new rule is an important step, establishing robust safety standards for ADS-equipped vehicles.”

Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator, also shared a statement, adding that this rule ensures that manufacturers prioritize safety first.

“As the driver changes from a person to a machine in ADS-equipped vehicles, the need to keep the humans safe remains the same and must be integrated from the beginning.

“With this rule, we ensure that manufacturers put safety first.”

Quick Look At The NHTSA’s Final Rule

You can read the full publication here. The rule discusses the implications and the notice of the proposed rulemaking (NPRM) approach to driver definition. In this section, it also describes new and current terms and definitions such as newly defined, new, modified, and relocated terms. It also covers the driver’s designated seating position, passenger seating position, steering wheel to steering control, row and seat outline, outboard designated seating position, and driver air back and driver dummy.

The table below shows the proposed changes to the terms and definitions.

Screenshot of Table 2 from the NHTSA document.

Screenshot of Table 2 from the NHTSA document.

Screenshot of Table 2 from the NHTSA document.

The rule also covers vehicles that don’t have an occupant. In the NPRM section, the NHTSA said:

“Occupant-less vehicles are designed for the transportation of property, not people, and have no DSPs. The agency has determined that the original safety need of the 200-Series FMVSSs no longer exists when there are no occupants to protect. A more fulsome discussion of this topic is provided in section V of this preamble.”

Section V noted that the standards apply to passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles such as trucks, buses, and school buses. It noted that occupant-less vehicles wouldn’t have designated seating positions or any other vehicle features that aid in the transportation of both seated and standing occupants. (Think: buses. I’ve had to stand on a few full buses a few times.)

The rule also noted that occupant-less vehicles as qualify for trucks, and since the 200-Series standards apply to trucks, they also apply to occupant-less vehicles even though they don’t have occupants (NHTSA’s wording here).

Conclusion

This isn’t really a deep dive into the rules, but more than a quick glance. All the legal jargon and wording aside, I think the NHTSA is taking good steps in the direction of an autonomous future. The agency and those working there are well aware of the direction that technology is moving towards in regards to driving. sSome may find it a bit early or fear that the NHTSA is moving too fast, but I think it’s refreshing. This rule was needed for the US to keep up with today’s evolving technology, and the NHTSA didn’t wait too long to implement it.

One final takeaway is that the NHTSA acknowledged the uncertainty that exists around the development and potential deployment of ADS-equipped vehicles. However, the agency stated that it believes that it needed to finalize this action in order to anticipate emerging ADS vehicle designs that the agency has seen in prototype forms.

“NHTSA has designed this final rule to minimize the changes to the FMVSSs and to maintain the level of occupant protection currently provided in all FMVSS compliant vehicles. This final rule provides regulatory certainty that, despite their innovative designs, vehicles with ADS technology must continue to provide the same high levels of occupant protection that current passenger vehicles provide.”


 

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