WASHINGTON -- Automakers and tech companies working on self-driving car systems can expect greater scrutiny from U.S. regulators before they can put those cars on the road under a new federal policy that represents a significant shift in how vehicle technologies and safety are regulated.
Under policy guidance released today by the Obama administration, automakers will be asked to assess the vehicle system design, development, testing and deployment work behind an autonomous vehicle or system before it can be offered for sale or put into service on public roads, U.S. officials said Monday.
According to the DOT, the “safety assessment” outlines what automakers must do to achieve what the department views as a “robust design” for autonomous vehicles. Automakers will be asked to provide documentation and information covering 15 specific topics, such as how automated systems detect objects on the road, how information is displayed to drivers, what cybersecurity measures are in place and the testing and validation methods used to develop the system.
In addition, the Obama administration said it may seek a new power for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that would require autonomous vehicle systems to receive approval from the agency prior to commercial introduction. The change, which would require an act of congress, was among a number of potential new authorities the administration said regulators may need to oversee autonomous cars.
Sea change in policy?
For the last 50 years, automakers have engineered vehicles to meet federal auto safety rules governing car design and performance, leaving regulators to enforce the standards once the cars are sold to customers. The policy for autonomous vehicles will bring about a new level of government involvement and input prior to sale, marking a significant change to the NHTSA's regulatory regime of “self certification.”
“The policy improves upon traditional U.S. auto regulation which relies on post-sale enforcement based on safety standards that can take many years to develop and traditionally are only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a Monday conference call with reporters ahead of Tuesday’s policy release.
“Instead, this automated-vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as DOT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front end of development.”
Foxx also outlined other elements of the Transportation Department’s hotly anticipated autonomous-vehicle policy during the call. It seeks to draw clearer lines for how states and the federal government should share the task of regulating of automated vehicles. It also outlines new powers that NHTSA contemplates it will need to effectively regulate the safety of autonomous vehicles.
Most of the policy took effect today when it was published.
In the coming months, regulators will begin asking automakers and tech companies to complete the assessments for autonomous systems that are already on the road in tests and available for commercial sale, according to a senior Transportation Department official. Tech companies testing autonomous cars such as Google and Uber, in addition to automakers offering limited self-driving systems, including Tesla Motors, will be asked to complete the assessments
NHTSA then plans to begin a rulemaking process to mandate the assessments, Foxx said at a press conference today.
The assessments are part of the Transportation Department’s most far-reaching statement yet on the near- and long-term regulatory framework it envisions for autonomous cars. The policy released today also draws clear lines between the roles played by states and federal authorities, and contemplate new powers that NHTSA may need to regulate the vehicles in the future.
As part of its autonomous-vehicle policy, the agency has scrapped its own classification of automated driving technologies and will adopt the five-level scale developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
The new assessments would apply to all vehicles with an SAE Level 3 automated driving systems or higher, the DOT official said. A Level 3 system can provide full autonomous driving without human intervention in certain situations, such as highway driving, while still requiring a human driver to take over in other settings.
More immediately, NHTSA will ask automakers such as Tesla, Mercedes-Benz and others to complete assessments for their Level 2 systems in vehicles already on the road, the DOT official said. Such systems combine two or more automated driving functions such as adaptive cruise control and lane-assist, but require human drivers to take over steering after brief durations. Those assessments will cover most but not all of the 15 elements required for Level 3 systems and higher, the official said.
Completing the assessment will allow an automaker to introduce an autonomous system under the policy. NHTSA lacks the so-called pre-market approval authority needed to approve or block vehicles before they’re on the market.
“We’re going to make that process as transparent as possible,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said during the conference call. “There will be an evaluation process that will be gone through that examines the data that they have put in the letter.”
Threat to innovation?
The guidance-based policy was welcomed by automakers, which have warned against heavy-handed regulation of autonomous cars for fear that prescriptive rules could stifle innovation.
In a statement, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automakers including the Detroit 3, praised the DOT’s decision to issue guidance and said it would review the policy carefully.
"Guidance is the right action to take since the technology is developing quickly and collaboration between automakers and NHTSA is critical to avoid policies that become outdated and inadvertently limit progress in reducing the number of crashes and saving lives,” the group said. “A policy that evolves is smart given the pace of technology.”
John Bozzella, CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, the industry’s other primary trade group, also cheered the government’s approach.
“Global Automakers and its members remain committed to working with federal, state and local governments to ensure there is a flexible, consistent framework for automated vehicle technologies so consumers can fully realize the benefits as quickly as possible,” he said.