Steering Ahead: NHTSA Looks to Modernize Rules for Automated Driving Systems

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) steered into a new direction that may accelerate the development of self-driving technologies. The DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), in an effort to modernize Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”), issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on Tuesday seeking to ease certain safety requirements for Automated Driving Systems (“ADS”).

NHTSA’s Goal to Change Regulations that Hinder Innovation

NHTSA’s goals with the proposal were outlined in a statement from Acting Administrator James Owens. Acting Administrator Owens said, “With more than 90 percent of serious crashes caused by driver error, it’s vital that we remove unnecessary barriers to technology that could help save lives. . . . We do not want regulations enacted long before the development of automated technologies to present unintended and unnecessary barriers against innovation and improved highway safety.”

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act prohibits certain regulated entities from manufacturing for sale, selling, offering for sale, introducing or delivering into interstate commerce, or importing any motor vehicle or equipment that does not comply with FMVSS. See 49 U.S.C. § 30101 et seq. As NHTSA’s proposal recognizes, FMVSS “were promulgated long before vehicles equipped with ADS were contemplated, and thus, include a variety of assumptions surrounding who would be driving a vehicle, that the vehicle would have human occupants, and what protections drivers and occupants might need.” For the last few years, NHTSA has engaged with various stakeholders through the rulemaking process, and other public events, to understand the differences between ADS and traditional motor vehicles.

How Proposals are Accommodating ADS

NHTSA’s new proposal rewrites 11 standards found in the FMVSS’s 200 series of rules that pertain to vehicles and requirements for traditional manual controls. Proposed changes would affect rules related to occupant protection, steering wheels and controls, side-impact protection, roof crush resistance, seating systems, door locks, glazing materials, and child restraint anchorage systems.

For example, under the revised rules, certain ADS would no longer be required to have traditional steering wheels and frontal passenger protection requirements would be applied to the traditional driver seat. The rationale put forth in the notice is that an occupant should not need protection from a steering wheel system if none exists in the vehicle. Other small changes would allow passenger seats to be designed to allow passengers to face each other instead of the road.

While the proposals are aimed at removing certain barriers, NHTSA notes that the proposed changes mainly accommodate ADS that carry property or goods, not human passengers. As NHTSA’s proposal states, “much of this potential [for ADS] is currently unsubstantiated and the impacts unknown, the agency believes the most prudent path forward is to remove unnecessary barriers to innovation while ensuring that occupants continue to receive the same protection afforded by existing regulations.” Nothing is changing in regards to traditional motor vehicle safety.

Takeaways for Moving Forward

Though finalizing the proposal will take some time, now is a critical period for interested stakeholders to get involved in the agency process to shape the development of ADS requirements. Agency regulators will be accepting comments from interested stakeholders for 60 days after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register. Comments are anticipated from the auto industry, safety groups, and the public at large.

Although suggested rule changes mainly accommodate ADS carrying property and goods, it may not be too long before NHTSA introduces proposals for ADS carrying human passengers. Any ADS developments pertaining to property and goods may set the course for future proposals related to ADS designed for human passengers.