Products Liability Law Daily Public workshop on NHTSA’s automated vehicles guidance policy solicits strong comments
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Monday, April 11, 2016

Public workshop on NHTSA’s automated vehicles guidance policy solicits strong comments

By Colleen Kave, J.D.

On April 8, 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held the first of two planned public workshops on automated vehicles (AV) at the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters. The stated purpose for these meetings is to collect input on planned operational guidelines for the safe deployment of automated vehicles and speakers from Consumer Watchdog and Global Automaker’s took advantage of the opportunity to provide their perspectives on the agency’s AV guidance policy. NHTSA already issued a request for public comments on its proposed Enforcement Guidance Bulletin 2016-02, which is designed to facilitate automotive safety innovations and aid in the successful development and deployment of emerging automotive technologies.

Enforcement Guidance Bulletin 2016-02. The proposed Enforcement Guidance Bulletin 2016-02, which was published in the Federal Register on April 1, 2016 [81 FR 18935], set forth NHTSA’s current view of its enforcement authority and the principles guiding its exercise of that authority, including guiding principles and best practices for use by motor vehicle and equipment manufacturers, and it asserted that its authority extends and applies equally to new and emerging automotive technologies. Accordingly, NHTSA stated that manufacturers of new and emerging vehicle technologies and equipment have an obligation to notify NHTSA of any and all safety-related defects, and added that manufacturers should take steps to proactively identify and resolve safety concerns before their products are available for use on public roadways. The agency suggested that manufacturers consider adopting a life-cycle approach to safety risks when developing automated vehicles, other innovative automotive technologies, and safety compliance programs and other business practices in connection with such technologies. A life-cycle approach would include "elements of assessment, design, implementation, and operations as well as an effective testing and certification program." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, A Summary of Cybersecurity Best Practices, (Oct. 2014).

Update to Preliminary Statement of Policy. In conjunction with the April 8 workshop, NHTSA released an update to the Enforcement Guidance Bulletin in which the agency pledged to "work with states to craft and propose model policy guidance that helps policymakers address issues in both the testing and the wider operational deployment of vehicles at advanced stages of automation and offers a nationally consistent approach to autonomous vehicles." The agency also committed to continue its extensive research program to maintain a broad and deep understanding of new technology; to use all available tools to determine the safety potential of new technologies; to eliminate obstacles that would prevent or delay technology innovations from realizing that safety potential; and to work with industry, governmental partners at all levels, and other stakeholders to develop or encourage new technologies and accelerate their adoption where appropriate. Noting that emerging automated vehicle technology is an area of rapid change, NHTSA emphasized that all of its activities in the area of automated and connected vehicles will keep its life-saving mission as their focus. (DOT/NHTSA Policy Statement Concerning Automated Vehicles; 2016 Update to Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles, April 2016).

Consumer Watchdog’s comments. In a statement submitted for the NHTSA workshop by the nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Project Director John M. Simpson expressed concern that an unjustified rush to deploy automated vehicle technology will pose a grave threat to safety on the nation’s highways. Critical of Google’s plan for a self-driving robot car, Simpson opined that "… deploying a vehicle today without a steering wheel, brake, accelerator and a human driver capable of intervening when something goes wrong is not merely foolhardy. It is dangerous. NHTSA’s autonomous vehicle guidelines must reflect this fact." Simpson went on to cite results from companies that have been testing self-driving cars in California since September 2014 in support of his safety concerns. According to the companies’ data on "disengagement," or circumstances in which a test driver had to take control of a vehicle, Simpson told attendees that robot cars still are not capable of dealing reliably with everyday real-life situations such as pedestrians and cyclists, low-hanging branches, weather conditions, parked cars, or the reckless behavior of others on the road. The evidence collected, Simpson asserted, shows that "there are many everyday routine traffic situations with which the self-driving robot cars simply can’t cope. It’s imperative that a human be behind the wheel capable of taking control when necessary."

Simpson also worried that Google was attempting to bypass the usual auto safety standards and fast track the approval process for its robot car, and he encouraged NHTSA not to rely only on the word of manufacturers when the agency reviews the safety claims of the developers of self-driving robot car technology, but rather to employ an independent, third-party organization to help ensure that the vehicles can handle all of the situations encountered in the real world. He concluded his statement with a list of questions he believed NHTSA should ask Google, covering topics including transparency with respect to the vehicles’ limitations, publication of the company’s software algorithms and other data, and the threat of hackers.

Global Automakers comments. Paul Scullion, Safety Manager at the Association of Global Automakers, which represents international motor vehicle manufacturers, original equipment suppliers, and other automotive-related trade associations, also submitted remarks for the NHTSA workshop. Mr. Scullion began by recognizing that the evolving automotive industry requires policymakers to explore new ways of addressing technologies outside of the traditional rulemaking process, but he noted that such "non-FMVSS" approaches present both opportunities and challenges. Referencing the Department of Transportation’s plan to "…provide federal leadership and guidance in the development of a more consistent national policy" by working with industry stakeholders, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administration (AAMVA), and other state partners, Scullion asserted that he believed those actions to be a positive step, but he also revealed a number of outstanding questions regarding the scope and expected outcome of those initiatives.

Initially, Scullion questioned the level of detail and the intent of the process, explaining that based on the current state of technology, any policy recommendations developed by the agency should be flexible and avoid overly prescriptive design recommendations. Moreover, Scullion opined that NHTSA should not bind itself to arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines at the expense of robust and thoughtful policy analysis, but rather consider the development of policy incrementally and strategically, addressing the near-term, mid-term, and long-term issues as appropriate. In light of those concerns, Scullion expressed support for "ongoing stakeholder engagement and dialogue" throughout the policymaking process, but expressed doubts that the two planned workshops were sufficient for adequate collaborative discussion on the relevant issues. Among the issues he highlighted were coordination among federal, state, and local government agencies and avoidance of inconsistent regulations; clear distinctions between specific levels of driving automation depending upon the operational characteristics and the expected role of the driver when the system is engaged; defining the operational boundaries of an automated driving system; data and privacy issues; and international harmonization of automated vehicle policy.

Second workshop. NHTSA plans to hold the second meeting in California. Details on the date and location, as well as how members of the public can participate, have not yet been released by the agency.

MainStory: TopStory MotorVehiclesNews

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