Products Liability Law Daily Transportation Department reviews safety standards to identify barriers to certifying automated vehicles
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Monday, March 14, 2016

Transportation Department reviews safety standards to identify barriers to certifying automated vehicles

By John Dumoulin.

Seeking to identify instances in which existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) may pose challenges to the introduction of automated vehicles, the Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center has prepared a preliminary report in which the Volpe team concluded that current FMVSS do not explicitly address automated vehicle technology and often assume the presence of a human driver, which means that existing language may create certification challenges for manufacturers of automated vehicles that choose to pursue certain vehicle concepts. The report states that while it is uncertain when commercially viable automated vehicles will be available, “the extent of industry activity indicates that commercialization of automated vehicles—at least in limited form—is imminent.” The report, which was conducted in coordination with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and prepared at the request of NHTSA and the Transportation Department’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office was released by NHTSA on March 11, 2016 (Review of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for Automated Vehicles, Preliminary Report, March 2016).

Review of current standards. The Volpe team reviewed the FMVSS, which are codified at 49 CFR Part 571, to identify instances that may create barriers or challenges for the certification of automated vehicles with particular characteristics, including situations in which those characteristics could introduce ambiguity into the interpretation of existing standards.

The report identifies standards requiring further review or discussion to ensure that existing regulations do not unduly stifle innovation and to help ensure that automated vehicles perform their functions safely. It is a preliminary report reflecting the results of an initial analysis and may be modified later based on stakeholder input and further discussion.

Report findings. Specifically, the report stated that the Volpe team conducted two reviews of the FMVSS: a “driver reference scan” to identity which standards include an explicit or implicit reference to a human driver and an “automated vehicle concepts scan” to identify which standards could pose a challenge for a wide range of automated vehicle capabilities and concepts.

According to the Volpe team, the safety standards contain numerous references to a driver, a driver’s seating position, or controls and displays that must be visible to or operable by a driver, or actuated by a driver’s hands or feet. Regarding the “automated vehicle concepts scan,” the report revealed that there are few barriers for automated vehicles to comply with FMVSS, as long as the vehicle does not significantly diverge from a conventional vehicle design.

However, the report stated that the number of FMVSS that could present challenges for automated vehicles significantly increases as these concepts “begin to push the boundaries of conventional design,” such as those with alternative cabin layouts or omission of manual controls. Also, since many current standards are based on assumptions of conventional vehicle designs, they pose challenges for design concepts such as driverless vehicles. In particular, the report found that the standards for “Controls and displays” (Sec. 571.101), “Rear visibility” (Sec. 571.111), and “Occupant crash protection” (Sec. 571.208) could become problematic and require further review.

The review also identified two standards—“Theft protection and rollaway prevention” (Sec. 571.114) and “Light vehicle brake systems” (Sec. 571.135)—that present potential challenges for automated vehicles with conventional designs.

NHTSA response. In a press release that referred to the report, NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D., was quoted as saying that the report “shows there are few current restrictions on some automated vehicle concepts, which highlights the need to establish clear expectations for their safe operation. At the same time, for other vehicle designs, the agency has more work to do to ensure the safety of new innovations, and we look forward to learning more from stakeholders as we start that work.”

MainStory: TopStory ReportsandStudiesNews

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