Feds’ New AV Policy Paper Continues Voluntary Approach

The US Department of Transportation is sticking to its emphasis on voluntary efforts rather than detailed regulations in its latest guidelines on automated vehicles, which expand the scope of the policies to include additional areas like roads, transit and commercial trucking.

The initiatives outlined in the new policy statement released on October 4, called “Automated Vehicles 3.0,” could significantly change the federal government’s approach to car safety standards in order to accommodate emerging automation technologies, including fully self-driving vehicles.

While some safety advocates have called for tighter control of testing and deployment of AVs, the federal government will continue the self-certification process it introduced last September with “Automated Driving Systems 2.0.” Its new, 64-page report, “Automated Vehicles 3.0: Preparing for the Future of Transportation,” builds on the previous document rather than replacing it, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Heidi King said at an event to introduce the report.

The DOT is also proposing several new steps to make it easier to get AVs on the road while the government’s complex array of vehicle safety rules catches up to an era when drivers won’t always be behind the wheel.

Among other things, the department plans to start a rulemaking process to add exceptions to current federal safety standards where they aren’t suited to AVs and seek comment on streamlining the process of granting exemptions to the rules for new vehicles. NHTSA will also look for input from manufacturers and the public on a pilot program where it could monitor and learn from AV development and testing.

Meanwhile, the department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees commercial vehicles, will consider changes to safety regulations for buses and large trucks to accommodate automation.

The new proposals seem to be steps in the right direction, Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid said.

“It’s good that NHTSA is going to start looking where to amend [safety regulations] to address requirements that don’t apply to AVs,” Abuelsamid told TU Automotive via e-mail. “This would enable the construction and deployment of AVs without traditional controls.”

The report also supports the development of technical standards by independent bodies such as the Society of Automotive Engineers, which is starting to develop consistent test specifications, he said. But the DOT should make more testing and development practices mandatory, including data sharing and safety reports, to help it craft future safety standards, he said.

The paper also aims to clarify the roles of federal, state and local authorities in regulating autonomous vehicles and the drivers who test them. Some local officials worry that federal attempts to standardize rules across the country may infringe their authority.

Even though the DOT is relying on voluntary self-assessments of safety by the companies that put AVs on the road, it’s not relinquishing its watchdog role, King said.

“The [DOT] and the [NHTSA] continue to be vigilant and will not hesitate to act when safety defects are identified, when they exist, including those involving advanced technologies,” she said. Vehicles are still subject to recall if they pose an “unreasonable safety risk,” she said.

The DOT also announced on Thursday it will start exploring the politically charged issue of whether driverless vehicles will take away jobs. A study conducted along with the Department of Labor, Department of Commerce and Department of Health and Human Services will examine the likely workforce impact of AVs, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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