Regulators Still Not Up To Speed With AVs, Says Navya

Driverless car development has quickly outpaced most current regulations, causing a number of headaches for manufacturers looking to test their autonomous technologies.

In the US vehicles are still required to have pedals, dashboard gauges, steering wheels and other elements that a self-driving car does not actually need to function. The workaround is a complex process involving waivers for every city and every route in which an autonomous vehicle might be tested.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requests a number of specific details to be listed in the waiver, including days and times of operation and the types of vehicles and pedestrian traffic the AV could encounter. This is all designed to instill NHTSA with confidence in the carmaker requesting a test but it’s a time-consuming strain that needs to be ironed out.

“The uniqueness of regulation has definitely been a big challenge,” said Aaron Foster, solutions engineer at Navya, a manufacturer of autonomous shuttles and robo-taxis. “From city to city, state to state, there’s not a uniform type of regulation. That’s another thing that NHTSA is hopefully trying to right with the automated driving system guidance. They’ve also released suggestions on different ways that you can write legislation to make sure you are still maintaining a level of safety that NHTSA is expecting.”

Foster said that none of the Level 4 vehicles being developed fit with the existing safety standards. LiDAR, for example, provides a 360-degree monitoring capability that should eliminate the need for traditional rearview mirrors. “It’s a much higher level of sensing than even a team of humans could have,” he said. “NHTSA is actually going through the process right now of re-writing the safety classifications to take that into account. What we’re hoping to get would be an actual regulation. It would be a class of vehicles, which would remove requirements for some of these legacy features like steering wheels, pedals and things like that. Then, moving forward, we can actually deploy these in a safe and meaningful way without being hampered by the red tape of requesting waivers.”

There was hope that the American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act would pave the way for proper regulation but it failed to pass before the end of 2018. Consequently, earlier legislation from the US House of Representatives, the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act (SELF DRIVE Act), is not expected to advance. “A lot of these exercises in regulations are really designed to remove barriers,” said Foster. “That’s because the industry, in general, has a long history of self-certification and working with the government.”

Outdated legislation

The challenge for AV development is that much of the technological legislation is outdated by the time it’s signed into law. To avoid stagnation, Foster anticipates that automotive regulations will have to be revisited and re-written every five to 10 years.

“When I was exploring the regulation for the Buy America Act, there’s still references to cassette decks and things we’ve not seen in vehicles for quite some time,” said Foster, illustrating his point about the need to continuously re-write AV legislation. “I think this is something we’re going to have to revisit on a fairly frequent basis because, frankly, 10 years ago, I don’t think very many folks would have thought that we would be this far down the road with commercial deployments for autonomous vehicles. We have no idea what’s going to be going on 10 to 15 years from now, realistically.”

Foster added that education is essential to finalizing and advancing legislation. “We’ve seen recent hearings where we have the folks that are writing legislation for us, asking some very basic level questions that you would hope people writing the legislation would understand,” he said. “I think that just continuing the collaboration between legislators and industry, keeping them aware of not only where we are but where we expect to be in the next few years, is going to be key.”

New uses for old batteries

At present 95% of an end-of-life lithium battery is not recyclable and this seriously impacts on the technology’s credentials as a green energy source. Foster thinks there are ways around this issue, starting with new uses after batteries are removed from electric vehicles.

“It’s not very widely known that when an automotive traction battery is considered to have reached the end of its life, it still has somewhere around 80% of its total usability,” said Foster. “There is a second life available for this type of battery. Grid storage for energy, when we’re talking about renewables, is going to be a big one. It doesn’t exactly address the question of recycling because they will, at some point, have to be recycled. Hopefully as [the industry] continues to increase the utilization of batteries for energy storage we’ll also increase our ability to recycle them.”

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