volvo driverless truck

Self-driving vehicle regulations relaxed by Trump administration

Image credit: volvo

The Trump administration is pushing ahead with its plans to relax the current safety rules which prevent fully autonomous, self-driving, cars from operating on public roads without traditional control devices such as steering wheels, pedals and mirrors, according to a document made public this week.

In the document, as reported by Reuters, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that it “intends to reconsider the necessity and appropriateness of its current safety standards” as it applies to autonomous vehicles, the US Department of Transportation said in an 80-page update of its stated principles, titled ‘Automated Vehicles 3.0’.

The NHTSA invites comment “on proposed changes to particular safety standards to accommodate automated vehicle technologies and the possibility of setting exceptions to certain standards that are relevant only when human drivers are present”.

The updated federal guidance policy now covers large trucks, buses, trains and trams in addition to cars, stating that it will “no longer assume” that the operator of any type of commercial motor vehicle has to be a human. The proviso is that automotive companies must be able to make the case that their vehicles are likely to achieve “an equivalent level of safety” - an open-ended qualification that some critics are concerned opens the door to voluntary self-certification, rather than be subject to federal regulation.

In response to the new policy document, Uber said that it will join Waymo, General Motors, Ford and Nuro in offering a voluntary safety assessment of its vehicles.

At present, car manufacturers in the US must satisfy approximately 75 safety standards, many of which were written on the basis of a human operator being in control of the vehicle. This blanket assumption is becoming outdated, in tandem with the rapid development of technology for autonomous vehicles. In January this year, General Motors filed a petition seeking an exemption to the current rules, as it has plans to deploy a fleet of autonomous vehicles, without steeering wheels, as part of a ride-sharing operation some time during 2019.

Similarly, Alphabet offshoot Waymo, one of the leading self-driving firms in the US, has been working towards starting a driverless mobility service for the public in Arizona, the US State most welcoming to self-driving test fleets. California, by contrast, makes much stricter demands of car companies.

The revised federal guidelines come after a self-driving Uber vehicle - which did have a human operator behind the wheel - misidentified and killed a female pedestrian crossing the road at night in front of the Volvo SUV in Tempe, Arizona, in March. The human operator was not in manual control of the vehicle at the time of the accident and Uber had turned off the car’s automatic emergency braking system as part of its testing program. The crash remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The updated policy says the Department of Transportation “will modernise or eliminate outdated regulations that unnecessarily impede the development of automated vehicles” and argues that “conflicting State and local laws and regulations surrounding automated vehicles create confusion, introduce barriers and present compliance challenges.”

Conflicting State laws are certainly an issue with driverless trucks, given the long distances commonly covered by such vehicles in the course of their service, regularly criss-crossing multiple State lines. The driverless truck issue has been described as “a political hot potato” and is one aspect of autonomous vehicles that has largely been sidelined in Senate discussions. Aside from the obvious matter of public safety, there is also concern over the impact of driverless vehicles on the workforce, potentially affecting many different driver types - long-distance lorry drivers, taxi drivers, delivery drivers and couriers, bus and train drivers and operators of industrial machinery, such as forklift trucks in warehouses.

One key benefit of the new policy might be that scrapping traditional requirements - such as the insistence that a car must have a steering wheel - could open up new opportunities for car designers, who would be free to reimagine the interior space of a vehicle. Concept cars designed along these lines have already begun appearing at technology and automotive shows, such as CES and the Geneva Motor Show. The current rules and regulations prevent such future concepts from moving forward any further.

However, aside from government regulation, one of the most pronounced obstacles to a more rapid evolution of the self-driving vehicle space is public opposition: the people must still be persuaded. According to three recent separate surveys gauging public feeling towards self-driving cars, 70 per cent of Americans believe that autonomous vehicles will be common within the next 15 years. However, in a different survey, 74 per cent of people said they don’t expect to own one themselves, while in a third survey around 66 per cent of those polled declared that they would not want to walk or ride a bicycle anywhere near one.

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