Transportation safety agency tees up regulations for driverless cars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking at how to regulate self-driving cars.

autonomous vehicles

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is setting the stage for addressing the safety of self-driving cars: how to regulate them and what regulatory changes may be to adequately assess their safety.

In a Federal Register notice to be published May 28, the NHSTA points out as self-driving cars could reduce the number of vehicular crashes and injuries, it plans to develop a new "comprehensive strategy" to update safety standards for automated vehicles "while addressing regulatory barriers to the compliance verification of these vehicles."

The agency said it plans to release two future notices as part of this strategy.

NHTSA states that while some automated vehicles "are equipped with manual controls, and thus NHTSA can conduct compliance verification testing of those vehicles using current test procedures, this is not the case with all" automated cars, such as ones with crash avoidance systems.

Further, NHTSA states that changes to existing regulations "may be necessary" to assess compliance with motor vehicle safety standards. Under current standards, cars are required to have manual controls and "conventional" seating arrangements, so driverless cars without these traits "could complicate the compliance of the vehicle to the existing" standards.

"The agency intends to explore modifications to the standards with a continued focus on safety," the notice states.

NHTSA acknowledges in its notice that a pair of requests including concerns about the current standards for certification from Google in 2016, as well as from General Motors in 2018, "helped inform this document." Safety advocates, the document notes, responded to past proposals for regulatory changes requesting that new standards for driverless cars be created before old ones are removed.

Still, the agency states that simply removing the references to manual controls "does not resolve all issues" associated with the safety testing of driverless cars. The agency states that its current rules have no provisions to address the capabilities of automated vehicles or prohibit hardware or software used in automated driving systems, but it adds that the unique conditions presented by driverless cars “warrant further research to assess how to best structure any new regulation in a way that appropriately addresses safety issues."

NHSTA will accept comments on the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking within 60 days of its publication in the Federal Register.