NHTSA proposes rulemaking process for semi-autonomous vehicles

On Behalf of | Nov 23, 2020 | Products Liability

We’ve discussed before on this blog the fact that semi-autonomous vehicles may not be as safe as they might seem. While there is great promise in the technology to reduce crashes caused by human error, they are not free from error themselves.

It all comes down to the programming. Sensing, perceiving, prediction, planning, deciding and execution are all aspects of driving safely. They all require at least some judgment. The designers of these vehicles need to program them to prioritize safety to a greater extent than human drivers typically do, even though that would make riding in one less exciting.

It’s important to note that no vehicle on the road today is fully self-driving. In every semi-autonomous vehicle, there is the expectation that a fully vigilant driver will be standing by, ready to take over should the vehicle make an error.

Tesla’s Autopilot and other self-driving systems have allowed crashes

There have been crashes when drivers relied too much on the self-driving systems. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a special crash unit that is investigating about a dozen crashes involving Tesla’s semi-autonomous vehicles. The crashes appear to have occurred when the semi-autonomous driving system, the Autopilot, was in use. People have died.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has criticized NHTSA for failing to regulate semi-autonomous vehicles and failing to find a way to verify that manufacturers are complying with safety standards.

Rulemaking to begin

Now, NHTSA has opened up a formal rulemaking process. The process could result in binding safety standards, along with an understanding of industry best practices and information for consumers. The rules themselves, however, will probably be years in the making.

As it announced the rulemaking process, NHTSA commented that it “has no desire to issue regulations that would needlessly prevent the deployment of any (automated-driving system)-equipped vehicle,” and added that “an ill-conceived standard may fail to meet the need for motor vehicle safety and needlessly stifle innovation.”

The rulemaking will focus on what NHTSA considers the key functions of self-driving systems:

  • How they use sensors
  • How they plan routes
  • How they detect other road users
  • How they make decisions on responding appropriately to other road users
  • How they execute driving functions

As part of the rulemaking process, manufacturers, the public and other stakeholders will be asked to provide input as NHTSA develops “a framework that meets the need for motor vehicle safety and assesses the degree of success in manufacturers’ efforts to ensure safety.”

“This rulemaking will help address legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation in the development of automated driving systems,” said the secretary of transportation in a statement.

If you have a car with semi-autonomous features, it is crucial not to rely on them. Until greater safety standards are in place, assume that the semi-autonomous features are merely gadgets that could help you drive more safely. Never take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road.

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