The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced their “guidelines” for the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technologies. While cars and light trucks get a lot of the press around driverless vehicles, this guidance is for all autonomous vehicles – class 1-8 – that will be deployed in the U.S. Using the SAE levels of automation, this will impact level 2 and higher systems. A level 2 system is defined as an automated system that can actually conduct some parts of the driving task, human monitors environment but the human driver must take back control when system requests. This guidance, for the most part, is now in effect.

From my perspective, I’m not seeing this as in impact on current driver assistance systems like collision mitigation technologies. This guidance, however, will have an impact on potential systems down the road, such as platooning, highway pilot, yard maneuvering and other applications that will more fully assist the driver. Plus, OEMs and suppliers are going have some additional potential reporting and are responsible should there be an issue. (Yes, fleets could see downtime if a recall is initiated, but that’s really not different than today.)

Fleets will, however, have a greater burden to evaluate the technology that is being used. A lot of new players are entering the market – players that may not have the same level of testing, validation and functional safety requirements to ensure robust performance. Since there are no “performance specifications” to be met, there is nothing to ensure proper performance of the system. It becomes more the word of the supplier or OEM. In other words, more so than in the past, buyer beware! Fleets will need to test and evaluate the technologies in their operations to ensure that it meets their needs and performance expectations.

It’s interesting that this is “guidance” but not a regulation. I’m reminded of the line from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies in reference to the “Pirate’s Code,” paraphrasing of course, “It’s not like they’re “rules”…they’re more like “guidelines!”” Kind of implying that they aren’t hard and fast, but flexible.

To an extent, this is what the agency is trying to do…recognizing that autonomous vehicle technology development is moving rapidly and that regulation takes time. So, why not deliver on a need to ensure safety but also deliver flexibility to enhance innovation. That’s why these guidelines will be updatable over time. And, as appropriate, the NHTSA can still move forward with a formal rulemaking process to deliver hard and fast regulations.

Keep in mind that these “guidelines” do have some teeth, and that the agency is looking to Congress to give it an even bigger bite. If an OEM or supplier puts out a technology that isn’t safe, NHTSA can utilize their defect, recall and enforcement authority. Bottom line – if the technology crashes (literally), they can enforce a recall. And, you can likely bet that if the perpetrating entity hasn’t followed the guidelines in its development efforts, the agency may come down even heavier.

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The agency also makes a point that it can initiate enforcement actions, whether or not an FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard) exists for the particular issue. If the vehicle or technology poses an “unreasonable risk to safety” the agency can and will act. Depending on how much latitude is taken by the agency, industry can determine whether or not this is judiciously and effectively applied or overly applied resulting in court actions. Scalpel or hatchet – it’s the agency’s choice.

The NHTSA is also asking Congress for “new tools, authorities and regulatory structures” to help ensure the agency can be more “nimble and flexible” in responding to the rapid advances expected in technology deployment. It will be up to Congress to make this happen – and a lot will depend on the outcome of the election. Candidly, I’m not sure I see a Trump administration embracing additional legislation to help an agency regulate more, so the additional bite could be smaller than the agency hopes.

Aside from the regulatory stick, the NHTSA is really looking for more information sharing between entities and the government. The agency is smart enough to know what it doesn’t know and is really looking for OEMs, suppliers and other players in autonomous field to open up and provide insight as to what’s happening in their development process. They want to build their knowledge and expertise, which is a good thing. As businesses, however, OEMs and suppliers, develop products for sale. A level of confidentiality is needed to avoid potential competitive poaching…this can’t be a key to the patent office, so there has to be a balance. Knowledge sharing to a point that doesn’t create a competitive disadvantage for the inventing entity while at the same time helping the agency informed and up-to-date to aid in their efforts.

Overall, the guideline approach isn’t a bad thing. A more flexible and nimble approach that enables technologies to get out into the field faster is a good thing. Plus, it is true – regulations take a long time – the stability mandate (FMVSS 136) took 8 years to get from concept to final rule. When it comes to autonomous applications, mandating yesterday’s technology tomorrow is never a productive approach, especially where safety is concerned. It does mean, however, that OEMs and suppliers need to keep these guidelines in mind throughout their autonomous application development process. This is also isn’t a bad thing – better to have the expectation of what the agency will expect instead of getting blindsided after the product is on the market.

These guidelines do not have the same specificity as a regulation, so there will likely be interpretation issues. And, of course, regulations are not out of the question. Flexibility and speed, however, are good things. Will the guidance approach work? Time will tell.

In my next blog we’ll get a little deeper into the details. This guidance is integral to moving forward on future autonomy…it’s worth exploring!

Bendix Blog

Technical and industry insight from OUR experts.

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