The design, construction and performance of motor vehicles and related equipment must conform and be certified to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which are written and maintained by NHTSA. If NHTSA issues new guidelines, it could reduce uncertainty within the industry by providing a clear, centralized and cohesive path forward for compliance testing of driverless vehicles.
This is why NHTSA's next moves are so critical.
Under the current system, autonomous vehicle designs that cannot conform to current standards — for example, because they lack a steering wheel, gear-selection mechanism and foot pedals — must apply for an exemption. In 2017 and 2018, NHTSA offered nonregulatory guidance to industry and state governments for the design and testing of automated vehicles, but there is no new standard testing methodology for advanced autonomous vehicles that lack a human driver.
The exemption process has ground to a halt, frustrating an industry committed to realizing the lifesaving benefits of AV technology. General Motors has been waiting more than 18 months on its request for an exemption, and Waymo has requested that NHTSA remove unnecessary regulatory barriers to support the timely deployment of vehicles without traditional manual controls.
In the absence of national regulation, many states are enacting their own regulations, creating a patchwork of guidance the AV industry has to grapple with as their technology continues to spread. California has enacted a strict permitting process where companies are required to submit regular metric reports to continue to operate in the state. In Pennsylvania, unmanned and/or remote testing on trafficways is prohibited, in Texas it isn't, and in Arizona and Nevada it depends on whether the vehicle can achieve a "minimal risk condition" in the event of a failure.
While many of the regulations have similarities state to state, the disparities create commercial advantages for testing in particular states that are a weighty factor in determining where an AV company may decide to undertake their on-road development and the cost for that development.
While NHTSA considers the comments from companies, technical experts and safety advocates, some companies continue to push into the regulatory gray area. Tesla recently rolled out its Smart Summon feature, which allows operators to "summon" their car from a parking spot using a phone application. While at a low speed and in a short range, the car operates without a driver present. This demonstrates that, no matter what NHSTA does, the automotive industry is going to continue to develop and deploy pieces of autonomous technology at the boundaries of the current regulations.
However, the full promise of an automated driving future will depend on whether NHTSA is able to transform current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to incorporate the relevant autonomous driving system behaviors that can be used to demonstrate AV safety.
Realizing the full benefits of autonomous vehicles will require billions of hours of driving time across a range of driving conditions, so time is of the essence if we want to see deployment of this technology in a reasonable period of time.
To get autonomous vehicles on the road, NHTSA and Congress should link their current performance requirements, and the underlying safety rationale, to any new testing methodologies, ensuring that future safety levels are at least equivalent to today's and maintain continuity as tech develops.
Rule-makers don't need to reinvent the wheel to regulate autonomous vehicles, but they do need to add clarity to realize the full benefits of autonomous driving technology.