The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had decided there’s no need for modern vehicles to possess steering wheels, pedals, or other human controls — provided they’re intended to be fully autonomous.
Considering self-driving cars have become something of an engineering boondoggle after the automotive industry falsely claimed they’d become commercially available by 2019, it’s easy to assume regulators are putting the cart before the horse. But we need to remember that automakers have wanted this for a long time, are used to getting their way, and have well-paid lobbyists at their disposal. For example, General Motors and its autonomous technology unit Cruise has long been petitioning the NHTSA for permission to manufacture and field self-driving vehicles without human controls.
Though trying to understand why a company would want to manufacture passenger vehicles without human controls is a little vexing. Presumably, GM believes its AVs will someday become so competent that they’ll never need input from a flesh-and-blood driver. But eliminating a backup system where a driver could take control doesn’t seem to have that many advantages beyond the manufacturer having to make fewer trips to the parts bin.
Formal rule changes have been proposed going back to 2016, with the adopted version mimics rules floated in 2020. These call for any vehicle using advanced driving aids in tandem with human piloting to retain physical controls. According to regulators, only cars designed to be fully autonomous may nix the inclusion of steering wheels and pedals while still being in compliance with the updated safety rules.
From the NHTSA:
The final rule clarifies that, despite their innovative designs, vehicles with ADS technology must continue to provide the same high levels of occupant protection as current passenger vehicles.
This rule is part of NHTSA’s ongoing efforts to ensure the public’s safety as vehicle automation evolves. NHTSA is actively engaged in monitoring and overseeing the safe testing and deployment of these vehicles. NHTSA’s approach to advanced vehicle technologies prioritizes safety across multiple areas, including data collection and analysis, research, human factors, rulemaking and enforcement.
Last summer, NHTSA issued a Standing General Order requiring crash and incident reporting for vehicles equipped with ADS or certain advanced driver-assistance systems. This reporting will help NHTSA investigators quickly identify defect trends that could emerge in these automated systems.
In addition, NHTSA initiated rulemaking last year to set safety standards for automatic emergency braking, a driver-assistance technology that can help avoid crashes with other road users, including pedestrians.
If you want to slog through over 150 pages, the full rule is available via the agency’s website. But even the long version still lacks a comprehensive explanation as to how exactly control-free automobiles will be evaluated on their own ability to drive safely. Then again, there are numerous companies that are actively testing self-driving vehicles on public roads right now without much oversight. The presiding logic is that problems will be dealt with whenever they arise — a methodology that has only resulted in one fatality that we know of.
That doesn’t necessarily make this the responsible solution though. While there may have only been a single attributable fatality, autonomous test mules have been involved in a fair number of serious accidents over the years. They’ve also developed a complicated relationship with other drivers who commute through their designated testing zones. But we cannot unequivocally state that they are a menace without the U.S. Department of Transportation furnishing the relevant data to be cross-referenced against human drivers. Until the NHTSA starts sharing all that data is proudly been collecting, all we really have to work with is self-reporting coming out of the industry that pretty much always makes it look as though autonomous vehicles are superior in terms of safety.
“Through the 2020s, an important part of USDOT’s safety mission will be to ensure safety standards keep pace with the development of automated driving and driver assistance systems,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “This new rule is an important step, establishing robust safety standards for ADS-equipped vehicles.”
But it seems far more interested in maintaining manufacturing compliance than maximizing occupant safety. Basically, regulators are simply giving the industry a green light to build cars without human controls under the provision that those vehicles still meet all other safety standards. Quality assurance in respect to the systems that keep the car from driving occupants off a cliff doesn’t appear to be particularly relevant here. However, the DOT has said it will be considering what other changes need to be made to make room for autonomous vehicles in the future.
[Image: Ford; GM]
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