Refining the technology behind autonomous vehicles is one thing. Getting the government and the public to trust a self-driving car is something else altogether.
As auto industry engineers work on the first, advocates and regulators are struggling to figure out how to tackle the second.
That was the topic at the virtual CES 2021 this week during a panel called “Self-Driving Vehicles Moving Forward: Who Will Set the Rules?”
While the 30,000-foot answer is pretty straightforward – governments will set the rules – there’s much more to letting an AV move you from A to B than just avoiding crashes.
As with fuel economy and crash standards, the AV industry in the U.S. will be best served by a national set of rules. There has been movement there, but it’s slow going. The U.S. House passed federal autonomous-vehicle legislation in 2017, but it then stalled in the Senate. Legislation was revived in 2019, but then dropped again.
“We’ve been working to advance AV legislation for the past four years,” says Jamie Boone, Toyota’s director-technology and innovation policy.
“At the end of the day, this is complex. This is new technology and it’s always difficult to get the policy right the first time. I think we have learned a lot in the last four years, in the development of the technology and understanding what the policy challenges are. I think policy makers have learned a lot as well, at the state level and at the federal level.”
Boone (below, left) said Wednesday the most important thing that needs to be addressed is raising the cap on AV exemptions to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
On Thursday, NHTSA amended several crashworthiness regulations for AVs and specifically exempted “automated vehicles designed never to carry human occupants, including human drivers, from crashworthiness standards.” The new rules do not affect traditional vehicles with manual driver controls.
Before the rule change was announced, Boone said exempting AVs from some of the standards will allow automakers and regulators to gather more information on what works and what doesn’t.
“When it comes to vehicles on the road today, you need to meet FMVSS, and they are pretty prescriptive and don’t necessarily adapt well to new technologies and new innovations,” Boone said.
“It takes a lot of time to update those rules, which is where the exemption piece comes in and why it’s so important to increase that cap because at the end of the day, for NHTSA to do their job, to be able to update these regulations, they need the data. That’s how you prove the safety case. The only way to do it is to get the vehicles on the road.”
Proving the safety case helps not only regulators but also the average person understand that an AV can be safe. And that starts by making sure today’s Level 1 or 2 AV technology works correctly, says David Quinalty, head of federal policy and government affairs for Waymo.
“Our advice would be to...update the regulations to better reflect the reality of autonomous systems, in particular those regulations that assume that a human driver will always be present behind the wheel,” he says. “The success of advanced driving technology is predicated on the public having trust in its safety. It’s really important that governments use their authority to assure that unsafe systems, including lower-level systems that are often misused by consumers, are kept off the roads.”
Boone says the slow going for AVs has its advantages, as more people are exposed to the technology.
“Every year we learn so much more and we are able to get these vehicles out and there’s more consumer awareness,” Boone says. “That consumer awareness is incredibly important because at the end of the day, we need people to be able to understand the capabilities of these vehicles and to trust them, or else who are we building them for?”