Regulators are keeping up with the driverless car

The development of the self-driving car is accelerating as more established carmakers and auto start-ups join the stampede to the testing grounds and, increasingly, public roads in and around metropolitan areas.

Google and Tesla have been testing autonomous cars on public streets for some time; ride-sharing giant Uber is allowing pre-selected customers to use one of their autonomous vehicles in a 12 square-mile area of downtown Pittsburgh; in April of this year, French carmaker PSA Group announced that two Citroën cars had driven over 300kms of selected roads from Paris to Amsterdam, achieving Level 3 autonomy; and, early next year, Swedish car-maker Volvo will start deploying 100 self-driving XC90 SUVs on public roads in Gothenburg and nearly the same number in London.

Much, if not most, of the private autonomous testing is being carried out without strict oversight or guidelines. In the US, for example, the great majority of states, which regulate drivers, have no regulations at all governing the deployment of self-driving cars, including Pennsylvania where Uber is testing. Until recently, the US National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), which oversees car safety, had not laid down any policy regarding the testing of driverless cars on public roads. However, in September the NHTSA issued the Federal Autonomous Vehicles Policy, a series of guidelines for carmakers and others who currently, or plan to, test their driverless cars or offer them for sale.

Under existing US law, carmakers bear the responsibility to self-certify that all the vehicles they manufacture for use on public roadways comply with all relevant federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS). Therefore, if a vehicle is FMVSS-compliant and maintains a conventional vehicle design, there is currently no federal law prohibiting the sale of an autonomous vehicle in the US.

However, for testing autonomous vehicles, the NHTSA appears to be breaking with precedent and looking outside the auto industry for guidance. In its policy statement, the agency says: “The Agency focused on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because its challenges seem closest to those that NHTSA faces in dealing with HAVs [highly autonomous vehicles]. FAA uses an agency pre-market approval process to regulate the safety of complex, software-driven products like autopilot systems on commercial aircraft. The FAA also requires regulated parties to analyse and assure the functional and system safety of their products during the product design process.”

According to Francois Guichard, economic affairs officer and engineer at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), this represents one significant and pragmatic option for the NHTSA. “Having the pre-market approval procedure could provide a kind of safety net to manufacturers, which they don’t have with self-certification,” he explains.

With a pre-market approval, the manufacturer would have the chance to know before launching the product if there is a problem that needs to be resolved. “So this option offers a possibility for real cooperation at the early stages,” Guichard notes. He goes on to say that NHTSA won't change its certification procedure but “identified pre-market approval as a potential new tool that might facilitate the safe deployment of HAVs. In addition, pre-market approvals have the potential for expediting the safe introduction of HAVs while increasing public acceptance and confidence because it would involve affirmative approval by the authorities of the safety of HAVs and of new safety technologies."

Guichard believes the pre-market approval procedure option offers an important advantage for autonomous technology. “Self-certification system are based on absolutely precise test procedures and requirements very clear at the time of development for the manufacturer and later for the authorities and their laboratories to know how to test and what criteria to verify,” he says. “However, today no one knows exactly all aspects [of autonomous systems] that need to be checked, because the technology is not mature and still under development.”

In Europe, the regulatory framework for the deployment of driverless cars remains murky, with many countries having laws on the books requiring a driver to have one hand on the steering wheel, even in an autonomous vehicle. In addition, the Vienna Convention, drafted in 1968, still mandates that a driver must be in control of the car at all times. There is also UN regulation 79, which forbids cars without drivers to travel faster than 10kmph.

All this has European carmakers worried, particularly those who are planning to market an autonomous car as early as 2020, like Volvo. Anders Eugensson, senior director and controller at Volvo Car group, says his company is “very concerned” about the European situation regarding autonomous vehicles. “At this time, there are no rules in Europe allowing for autonomous cars up to Level 4,” he says. “There are rules allowing for cars up to about Level 2.5. However, higher levels are illegal but there’s no activity now in Geneva opening up for cars at Level 3 and 4. That is really unsatisfactory.”

The prototypes Volvo will test in 2017 will be capable of achieving up to Level 4 autonomy, Eugensson says, adding that Volvo has been working with both the British and Swedish governments before starting to deploy them in the first quarter of next year. Yet he warns that unless new European laws for the technology are drafted, laws currently in force will impede autonomous-car innovation and even prevent the sale of driverless vehicles across the continent. “As it stands now, we cannot sell [self-driving vehicles] in Sweden, or in all of Europe,” he says.

No regulations currently exist in Sweden for the testing of driverless cars on public roads. “The regulations will be put in place next year,” Eugensson says. “The project is built very much on having a constant dialogue with the government agencies, which are actually part of the project. They basically want to have insight into what we are doing.”

While this process is very flexible, Eugensson did cite one existing regulatory issue concerning the privacy of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians on public roads that could present problems. “There’s a law in Sweden that says you are not allowed to put cameras on a car and record in public and save that data,” he explains. “That’s a problem for us because we film when we’re driving and develop our algorithms from the films. We understand the concern but it’s a conflict between the issue of privacy and making our cars really safe.”

Volvo has vowed to limit access to these films to only the people working on the algorithms and to destroy them after they have served their purpose. “It is important that we are allowed to film,” Eugensson says. “We want our sensors to be able to distinguish pedestrians and cyclists from other objects on the road.”

Volvo’s London project is being carried out under the regulations published in a code of practice issued by the UK government earlier this year. “Their approach to testing is very much like that of the Swedish government,” he explains. “The code of practice says that we have to be in constant discussion with the government and update them on whatever we do but there’s very little bureaucracy.”

However, Eugensson maintains that European governments and international authorities need to act quickly to alter laws, such as the Vienna Convention and UN Regulation 79, to facilitate the development of autonomous technology. “Otherwise, the US and China will be ahead of us in autonomous car development.”

Volvo is currently lobbying both national governments and the authorities in Geneva to update highway regulations to allow the deployment of autonomous cars. “We want the rules to change to allow drivers to be able to do other things when they’re in the car,” he says. “Because otherwise it defeats the whole purpose of having an autonomous car.”

UNECE’s Francois Guichard, who is based in Geneva, doesn't believe that authorities are moving too slowly. Regarding the infamous UN regulation on the speed limit, he says: “the GRRF working party [on braking and running gear] agreed in September 2016 on a first set of provisions for systems operating at a speed above 10kmph.”

He also says that UNECE had a discussion with the member states about the interpretation of the Vienna Convention for the purpose of testing autonomous cars. “And according to the experts, what was said is that the Vienna Convention does not in any way prevent any testing," Guichard says. Because the terms of the convention have to be implemented in national laws, variations regarding testing conditions persist.

Guichard says he is not worried about Eugensson’s contention that, under current European law, Volvo will not be able to sell its driverless cars in Europe.  “Look at Tesla,” he points out. “Tesla received approvals and managed to sell its vehicles within the EU. Of course, the situation is more burdensome when there is no harmonised regulation but it never prevents anyone from doing business on the basis of national or regional rules.”

He also insists that the coming into force of a clause in the Vienna Convention stipulating that if a driver can turn off the autonomous systems and take over control of the vehicle at any time or the system is in compliance with international technical regulations adequately addresses vehicle automation.

Guichard goes on to say that the priority of first regulating low levels of automation is primarily owing to the pace of technological development. “The regulator won't draft technical provisions prior to the development of the technology,” he explains. ”Otherwise, there is a non-negligible risk that the regulation is not compatible with the product. When you regulate, you don’t want to prevent innovation. The regulator has to closely follow technical development and accompany it.”

Guichard says that when carmakers are ready to market their autonomous vehicles, regulations will be drawn up and harmonised to facilitate it. “We are doing it now. UNECE developed during the last years the first set of technical requirements for a lower level of autonomy, because there is a demand for that. Member states, industry representatives and many other stakeholders, such as industry suppliers and consumer groups, met with us and said, ‘Let’s do it’.”

Guichard says the UNECE is planning to develop a second set of technical requirements by September 2017. “This will complement today's provision on Level 2 and address higher levels of autonomy. We are keeping pace with the manufacturers, both traditional and the newcomers.” 

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