NHTSA Revamps Safety Standards for Autonomous Vehicles

The U.S. National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has announced in a new 80-pages report to adapt the safety standards and licensing process in regards to autonomous vehicles. So far, some safety and control elements in cars have been introduced with a human driver in mind, such as steering wheel, back and side mirrors, and what function they must fulfill.

Now autonomous cars don’t required some of those elements anymore. The NHTSA realized that those may unexpectedly impede innovation in the transportation sector. Also the processes to test and license has to be changed. Thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning, software systems can update themselves all the time. Every certification process will be lagging behind and has to be newly defined.

Current test instructions and processes are very detailed and prescriptive and require lengthy certification processes. Also regulations today are expecting that vehicles can drive everywhere, while autonomous cars could be limited to certain domains and regions, and thus may not necessarily require to fulfill all requirements. The NHTSA also has to develop new tests, which don’t exist today.

As some countries today have some specialized test for their specific geography and conditions, such as Sweden and their infamous ‘Elk test’, autonomous cars may be tested under certain driving scenarios with varying conditions to complete certification. Which types of scenarios those will be, is work that the NHTSA has to do in collaboration with technology manufacturers and the public.

At the same time those changes are not just for cars, but also for streets and traffic regulation elements. Traffic signals, for instance, may become a thing of the past for most intersections, once only autonomous cars are on the roads.

How emergency responders communicate with the cars, how cybersecurity standards are implemented, or how regions can decide which modalities of transport to allow or restrict are also on the agenda of the NHTSA.

One of the Administration’s core mission is to bring safety to and protect the public. Safety elements and regulations of the past decades served to make traffic safer. But the past years have seen an increase in traffic fatalities and injuries. 94% of all accidents are caused by human error. In 2017, 39,171 people died on roads in the U.S., almost 11,000 fatalities were caused while driving drunk, 10,000 people died due to excessive speed, and professional drivers have a ten times higher risk of dying at work than other professions. 16% of all traffic fatalities were pedestrians.

The NHTSA has issued the Vision Zero, reducing the number of traffic fatalities to Zero by 2040. Therefore, the NHTSA regards autonomous cars as one key technology to achieve that goal. In their 80-pages report the NHTSA has way more details about their plans and next steps.

This article has also been published in German.

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