If you haven’t noticed, autonomous vehicles have been a massive topic of conversation despite the fact that most automakers aren’t actually all that close to releasing an autonomous passenger vehicle. In fact, we don’t really have a ton of cohesive regulations to dictate the development of self-driving cars. And that’s why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released some new guidelines—in many cases easing some of the stricter regulations it had previously imposed.
A statement issued by James C. Owens, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, on the company site lays out a lot of the changes being made to safety standards. The tradeoff here, he argues, is that it will allow for more rapid autonomous development, at which point it will be much easier to refine the technology we have. Think about the development of the car itself, for example—it took decades of dangerous experimentation before we started implementing safety regulations, but at that point, the tech had been well established.
One of the big allowances being made by NHTSA comes with cargo vehicles because they don’t carry passengers. Previously, those vehicles were regulated similarly to a passenger vehicle, requiring the same in-car safety measures. The intention is to speed up the delivery of these vehicles to the market. Exemptions are allowed for 2,500 vehicles a year.
Other clarifications in language include:
- NHTSA’s jurisdiction regarding the development of autonomous vehicles while state jurisdiction pertains to the operation of autonomous vehicles.
- The Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (AV TEST) Initiative will be implemented to allow the sharing of research between states to reduce the patchwork nature of current development.
- NHTSA is not prepared to implement hard regulations for development but will create a loose structure that will enable auto manufacturers to develop their own technologies within that framework.
- NHTSA may begin requiring manufacturers to more clearly articulate the purposes of ADS (Automated Driving Systems) vs. ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) so that we stop having the Tesla Self-Driving situation unless the car can actually drive itself.
- Vehicles that include two front seats will be regulated the same because neither will be the driver.
Of course, there are already some serious criticisms regarding NHTSA’s decision. Executive Director Jason Levine of the Center for Auto Safety stated that “NHTSA’s insistence of enabling the fast deployment of self-driving vehicles by amending rules written for cars with drivers, instead of recognizing the unique characteristics of autonomous technology, may be the fastest way to authorize the deployment of autonomous vehicles, but it is not a consumer safety–driven approach.”
We’re likely to see NHTSA continuing to define and refine its regulations regarding autonomous cars, but at the moment, its current redefinitions seem to provide a little bit of the leniency needed to make serious steps forward in autonomous tech.