The advent of autonomous driving is pushing the auto industry to rethink how standards and procedures to vet and deploy new safety technologies are set and adopted by regulators.
Recent crashes, such as the fatal Uber accident in Arizona and several involving semi-autonomous systems in Tesla vehicles, have put a spotlight on how the industry is regulated. Just last week, NHTSA ordered a cease and desist on an aftermarket device that effectively disables the safety controls on Tesla's Autopilot system, raising concerns that regulators cannot keep up with new technology.
Companies working at the forefront of self-driving car technologies such as mapping, sensors and pedestrian detection have to meet a high bar set by organizations such as SAE International and the International Organization for Standardization to achieve automotive-grade safety standards. But in a constantly evolving landscape, critics fear government authorities are falling behind in evaluating and approving these guidelines for road readiness, and, in some cases, are too inexperienced with new technologies to incorporate them into cars.
"This goes well beyond the types of technology NHTSA has dealt with in the past," said Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "This is a big learning experience for regulators."
Motor vehicle safety technology is governed by rules set by NHTSA in 73 mandatory requirements in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
NHTSA can adopt or update rules based on a process outlined in the 1996 National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, which allows for companies and standards bodies to introduce technologies and petition for updating or being excluded from certain regulations. Last year, for example, Volkswagen Group of America petitioned to be exempt from headlight requirements that blocked the company from introducing adaptive driving beams, following a similar petition from Toyota a year prior and updated guidelines from SAE in 2015.