There Has Never Been a Moment Like This: Driverless Vehicles Recognized by US

Rich OrdTechnology

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Driverless vehicles have the ability to literally change the world by making driving safer, more energy efficient, more accessible, and many will be happy to hear... eliminate congestion and gridlock. The government today made an important first step in truly making this possible.

"Today is an important moment at the Department of Transportation," announced Anthony Foxx, US Secretary of Transportation. "We have issue record recalls, we still have too many people dying on our roadways and we have too many Moms and Dads stuck in traffic losing productive time with their families. In the 50 years of the Department of Transportation there has never been a moment like this."

He added, "A moment where we can build a culture of safety as new transportation technology emerges that harnesses the potential to save even more lives and that will improve the quality of life for so many Americans. Today, we put forward the first Federal policy on automated vehicles. The most comprehensive national automated vehicle policy that the world has ever seen. It is a first of its kind."

"It is taking us from the horseless carriage to the driverless car," says Foxx. The policy is effective today, but the agency welcomes ongoing dialogue and will make changes as time goes on. "The focus on this technology will always be safety."

The New Driverless Vehicle Policies

The new policies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will also let those "drive" without a drivers license, just like they do currently with Uber, Lyft and taxis. The government differentiates rules and regulations for cars requiring a driver and those that don't.

If you were wondering, driverless cars will not have to have steering wheels or brake pedals. The agency says they have been charged with creating a path toward fully autonomous vehicles.

The 15 point assessment is designed to recognize that driverless vehicles are a rapidly changing and emerging technology. It does however, let the industry see a roadmap for how the government will deal with the regulatory environment for autonomous vehicles. Their goal is to build a safety culture now around autonomous vehicles, instead of as an afterthought.

The bottom line is that the NHTSA is extending its rulemaking authority to driverless vehicles.

Autonomous Vehicles Will End Drunk Driving

Also speaking during the announcement was the National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Colleen Sheehey-Church, saying "over ten thousand people continue to die each year needlessly due to drunk driving." She added, "A fully autonomous vehicle would stop a drunk drive simply because they can't physically drive the vehicle."

"I would also like to point out the driverless cars can do much more than simply stop drunk driving, these vehicles could potentially stop most of the traffic deaths in our country," says Sheehey-Church. "A driverless car is not distracted, it ensures that the occupants are traveling at appropriate speeds and it would avoid pedestrians and bicyclists."

"While improving safety, a driverless car would also create new mobility opportunities," she said. "Older drivers who may be shut in or unable to drive may be able to drive at night again. Members of the disabled community who may not be able to drive could now have new opportunities for transportation like never before."

"To that end, MADD is proud to support the new proposal on autonomous vehicles," she said.

Watch the HAV Press Conference here:

Overview of Federal Automated Vehicles Policy

The Obama Administration today has released the first set of guidelines for fully autonomous vehicles called the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. The 8 page policy release predicts a driverless car future that will create safer roads and many more energy efficient transportation options. Although the main focus of the new policy is about highly automated vehicles (HAVs), there are portions that also apply to lesser levels of automation such as the driver assist systems found in Tesla's and other high end cars.

"We’re envisioning a future where you can take your hands off the wheel and the wheel out of the car, and where your commute becomes productive and restful, rather than frustrating and exhausting," said Jeff Zients, who is Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, in announcing the new policy.

The government sees autonomous vehicles as a way to leap current hurdles for the 4 million Americans who are living with a disability as well as older people who have difficulty seeing at night. They also view it as a way to make our society more fair and just, where vehicles are made assessable for all. They even believe that blind people will eventually be able to use driverless cars to get around, with innovative technology that will be developed to assist.

The policy guidelines which were developed over several years are a work in progress and will be updated annually with the goal of keeping the regulations up-to-date with the rapidly evolving technology.

Components of the Policy

  • Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles: The guidance for manufacturers, developers and other organizations outlines a 15 point “Safety Assessment” for the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.
  • Model State Policy: This section presents a clear distinction between Federal and State responsibilities for regulation of HAVs, and suggests recommended policy areas for states to consider with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles.
  • Current Regulatory Tools: This discussion outlines DOT’s current regulatory tools that can be used to accelerate the safe development of HAVs, such as interpreting current rules to allow for greater flexibility in design and providing limited exemptions to allow for testing of nontraditional vehicle designs in a more timely fashion.
  • Modern Regulatory Tools: This discussion identifies potential new regulatory tools and statutory authorities that may aid the safe and efficient deployment of new lifesaving technologies.

Vehicle Performance Guidance

The policy creates a 15-point Safety Assessment which outlines objectives on how to achieve a robust design. It allows for varied methodologies as long as the objective is met:

  • Operational Design Domain: How and where the HAV is supposed to function and operate;
  • Object and Event Detection and Response: Perception and response functionality of the HAV system;
  • Fall Back (Minimal Risk Condition): Response and robustness of the HAV upon system
  • Validation Methods: Testing, validation, and verification of an HAV system;
  • Registration and Certification: Registration and certification to NHTSA of an HAV system;
  • Data Recording and Sharing: HAV system data recording for information sharing,
    knowledge building and for crash reconstruction purposes;
  • Post-Crash Behavior: Process for how an HAV should perform after a crash and how
    automation functions can be restored;
  • Privacy: Privacy considerations and protections for users;
  • System Safety: Engineering safety practices to support reasonable system safety;
  • Vehicle Cybersecurity: Approaches to guard against vehicle hacking risks;
  • Human Machine Interface: Approaches for communicating information to the driver,
    occupant and other road users;
  • Crashworthiness: Protection of occupants in crash situations;
  • Consumer Education and Training: Education and training requirements for users of
  • Ethical Considerations: How vehicles are programmed to address conflict dilemmas on
    the road; and
  • Federal, State and Local Laws: How vehicles are programmed to comply with all
    applicable traffic laws.

Model State Policy

The policy emphasizes that states will continue with their traditional responsibilities for vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and motor vehicle insurance and liability regimes while also carving out a new Federal role for autonomous vehicles. The goal is to not have states stepping all over themselves with a hodgepodge of rules, making it impossible for self-driving cars to drive between states.

The Federal responsibilities include setting safety standards and enforcing them, investigating safety issues and managing recalls, public education on driverless safety and communicating future guidance to the public in order to achieve national safety goals.

The Feds also created a regulatory framework model for states to follow in order to create a consistent approach to governing autonomous vehicles:

  • Application by manufacturers or other entities to test HAVs on public roads;
  • Jurisdictional permission to test;
  • Testing by the manufacturer or other entities;
  • Drivers of deployed vehicles;
  • Registration and titling of deployed vehicles;
  • Law enforcement considerations; and
  • Liability and insurance.

Current Regulatory Tools

Especially interesting is the governments forward looking approach in trying to make existing laws work to allow the use of driverless vehicles. This will be done via government agency reinterpretation of existing laws, using Letters of Interpretation, basically stretching them as far as they can go without changing their intent.

The policy is also going to use its current power to provide limited exemptions to vehicle manufactures to test new designs of cars that are not currently allowed. For instance, all cars must have a steering wheel, except that you don't need one in a driverless car and it could even add danger because people could bump into it. Exemptions will allow manufacturers to bypass "buggy whip" rules that aren't applicable in a vehicle that nobody is driving.

They have also created a path to more permanent ways to bypass old safety and design rules using a petition for rulemaking. This allows manufactures to adopt new standards, modify existing standards, or repeal an existing standard.

Modern Regulatory Tools

The new policy identifies new tools that could be created under current law while also laying the foundation for new laws requiring Congressional action. Within this section the policy is a first step toward reinventing laws and regulations of the world's likely driverless future revolving around safety issues, software updates, regulation processes, record keeping and data sharing.

Data sharing is an area the self driving industry may not be too happy about. They are likely to focus their army of lobbyist on Congress to make sure they aren't giving up their proprietary data that they have spent millions obtaining.

Rich Ord