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US Government set rules for self driving cars

Guidelines set out clear path for autonomous cars

14 December 2018

The U.S Federal government has decided that one area of the internet of things/internet of everything it needs to have a definitive view on is highly autonomous (self-driving) vehicles (HAVs).

The idea of the driverless car has been one that science fiction has plundered for many decades. But as the reality takes shape, we are now frequently asking whether self-driving cars are safe. 

In the 7 1/2 years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live.

- President Obama

In the introduction to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (published 20th September 2016) it lists a figure of 35,0932, for the number of people who died on US roads in 2015, with 94 percent of those attributed to human choice/error. Given that this would seem to demonstrate that human-driven cars are not exactly safe, it is no surprise that the Federal government is keen to take a early position on the safety of HAVs, as they are expected to start becoming more mainstream over the next decade. 

As Kevin Aston, the British technology pioneer, who first coined the term the internet of things (or IOT) in 1999, said of self driving cars in his recent book "How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery":  "Expect self-driving features in most new cars by 2020 and cars without steering wheels between 2025-2030, varying by country. What's the point? They will be safer, faster, more fuel efficient, and you'll be able to get things done, or take a nap, while you move from place to place."

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Key Points

The NHTSA Policy outlines:

  • Best practices for the safe pre-deployment design, development and testing of HAVs prior to commercial sale or operation on public roads;
  • A Model State Policy;
  • New guidance providing instructions and practical guidance to entities wishing to employ the existing regulatory tool with regards to HAVs; and
  • Potential new tools and regulatory structures to allow the Agency to quickly address any safety challenges posed by HAVs.

The main part of the policy will involve manufacturers and technology companies voluntarily providing reports to NHTSA detailing how the Guidance has been followed. This will require them to provide data for each HAV system on 15 points:

  • Data Recording and Sharing
  • Privacy 
  • System Safety 
  • Vehicle Cybersecurity 
  • Human Machine Interface 
  • Crashworthiness 
  • Consumer Education and Training
  • Registration and Certification
  • Post-Crash Behaviour 
  • Federal, State and Local Laws
  • Ethical Considerations 
  • Operational Design Domain
  • Object and Event Detection and Response 
  • Fall Back (Minimal Risk Condition) 
  • Validation Methods

This is potentially quite a lot of information that will be required from manufacturers. This data will also need to be updated, for example if an over-the-air software update changes the way the HAV operates – such as changes to speed limits, environmental operating conditions etc.

This reporting process may be refined and is likely to be made mandatory through a future NHTSA Policy Regulation

How will HAVs be regulated? 

The other parts of the Policy aim to explore how HAVs should be regulated. 

To this end the U.S Department of Transport (DoT) is encouraging States to allow the DoT alone to regulate the performance of HAVs, or to at least follow the guidance's Model State Policy if they wish to regulate it themselves.

They are also examining whether there is a need for new regulatory tools to assist in the safety management of HAVs such as: 

  • Whether NHTSA should have authority to regulate the safety of software changes provide after a vehicle's first sale;
  • Whether to adopt a pre-market approval process coupled with a self certification programme for different aspects of HAV systems; and 
  • Whether manufacturers should be compelled to provide the NHTSA with full technical details relating to any crashes involving their vehicles.

In formulating its policy the DoT/NHTSA consulted with industry leaders, experts in the field, state governments, the public, and safety advocates. It has been issued as guidance rather than in a rulemaking in order to speed the delivery of an initial regulatory framework and best practices to guide manufacturers and other entities in the safe design, development, testing, and deployment of HAVs. As such, it is clear that it is a living document and that feedback to the current version will inform future updates to this Policy.

Next Steps Include
  • The NHTSA are consulting on the Policy. Comments are requested by 20th November 2016.
  • Holding a public workshop to provide interactive discussions of the Guidance and Model State Policy and gather additional input for future considerations. 
  • NHTSA will publish a template for manufacturers and other entities to use to submit their Safety Assessments. 
  • The NHTSA will explore a mechanism to facilitate anonymous data sharing among those parties testing and deploying HAVs. 
  • NHTSA will explore the opportunity for cross-border consistency by engaging Canadian and Mexican authorities to leverage this document within their own regulatory framework.

Written by Scott Vine