— The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released its long-awaited self-driving car proposals to guide the U.S. toward a day when the roads are filled with "highly automated vehicles," or HAVs.
Safety regulators are trying to catch up to automakers and other manufacturers that continue to create autonomous technology and throw it on the roads to be tested, something safety advocates see as using vehicle occupants as guinea pigs.
It's something that concerns auto safety advocates who are afraid that due to the increasing pace of self-driving car technology, the government will create voluntary guidelines instead of hardcore laws, all because it could take years for the laws to take effect.
The idea of waiting years to debate HAV laws isn't appealing to federal safety regulators who see a need for anything that can lower the number of fatalities on U.S. roads. With an estimated 94 percent of all crashes caused by a human choice or human error, NHTSA believes so-called driverless cars are the answer.
NHTSA says "highly automated vehicles" are cars that can take full control of the driving, in at least some circumstances. The federal HAV proposals touch on many challenges that must be overcome before consumers see the cars covering the roadways.
One thing that seems to be cleared up is the role of each state concerning self-driving cars. In July, the government suggested each state would be able to create its own driverless car rules and regulations, but NHTSA now confirms that won't happen.
Automakers are pleased with the decision to create uniform national rules for self-driving cars instead of leaving it up to individual states, something manufacturers said would have created nothing but a patchwork of regulations across state lines.
State governments will still be responsible for licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement and motor vehicle insurance and liability issues. The liability issues and laws will be extremely important as lawsuits are filed every time a self-driving car is involved in a crash.
An important aspect of the proposals focuses on what NHTSA calls "behavioral competency," which refers to the ability of an automated vehicle to operate in the conditions any vehicle will encounter on the roads. For example, all self-driving manufacturers and other suppliers should have a documented process for assessment, testing and validation to show the cars can perform the following common driving conditions:
- Detect and Respond to Speed Limit Changes and Speed Advisories
- Perform High-Speed Merge (e.g., Freeway)
- Perform Low-Speed Merge
- Move Out of the Travel Lane and Park (e.g., to the Shoulder for Minimal Risk)
- Detect and Respond to Encroaching Oncoming Vehicles
- Detect Passing and No Passing Zones and Perform Passing Maneuvers
- Perform Car Following (Including Stop and Go)
- Detect and Respond to Stopped Vehicles
- Detect and Respond to Lane Changes
- Detect and Respond to Static Obstacles in the Path of the Vehicle
- Detect Traffic Signals and Stop/Yield Signs
- Respond to Traffic Signals and Stop/Yield Signs
- Navigate Intersections and Perform Turns
- Navigate Roundabouts
- Navigate a Parking Lot and Locate Spaces
- Detect and Respond to Access Restrictions (One-Way, No Turn, Ramps, etc.)
- Detect and Respond to Work Zones and People Directing Traffic in Unplanned or Planned Events
- Make Appropriate Right-of-Way Decisions
- Follow Local and State Driving Laws
- Follow Police/First Responder Controlling Traffic (Overriding or Acting as Traffic Control Device)
- Follow Construction Zone Workers Controlling Traffic Patterns (Slow/Stop Sign Holders).
- Respond to Citizens Directing Traffic After a Crash
- Detect and Respond to Temporary Traffic Control Devices
- Detect and Respond to Emergency Vehicles
- Yield for Law Enforcement, EMT, Fire, and Other Emergency Vehicles at Intersections, Junctions, and Other Traffic Controlled Situations
- Yield to Pedestrians and Bicyclists at Intersections and Crosswalks
- Provide Safe Distance From Vehicles, Pedestrians, Bicyclists on Side of the Road
- Detect/Respond to Detours and/or Other Temporary Changes in Traffic Patterns
Then there are the issues of how to make the cars stupid-proof against people who can barely operate a turn signal.
The Department of Transportation has turned to the airline world because of the amount of automation on planes, but expecting a typical consumer to "know" their car may be a challenge. Pilots are constantly trained in the operations of autopilot and other automated systems and how to immediately take back control from the systems when a problem occurs.
Consumers driving automated cars probably won't even read the owner's manual, so NHTSA is depending on automakers to train dealerships about the cars so the dealers can teach the drivers.
Safety regulators say consumers will need to be educated about various operations of the vehicles, including:
- Operational parameters
- Capabilities and limitations
- Engagement/disengagement methods
- Emergency fall-back scenarios
- Operational boundary responsibilities
- Potential mechanisms that could change function behavior in service
Dealers will also be encouraged to use virtual reality or on-road training programs to teach drivers how to use the cars.
The government also points out that even typically "minor" details can become major problems with self-driving cars, such as how repairs are handled after any type of crash. HAVs will be loaded with cameras, radars and sensors that could easily be damaged in the smallest crash.
One fender-bender could leave a driver questioning if they should operate the car in self-driving mode, something NHTSA says should not be allowed until all the systems are confirmed to work correctly.
Additionally, every manufacturer must have a documented process for how a self-driving car is put back into service after a crash. If any safety control systems or sensors are damaged, the car shouldn't be allowed to operate in self-driving mode.
NHTSA is also warning self-driving manufacturers about recall responsibilities and how NHTSA's authority will apply to HAVs. Safety regulators say semi-autonomous driving systems that fail to account for the possibility that an inattentive driver might fail to retake control of the vehicle during an emergency may be defined as an unreasonable risk to safety and therfore be subject to recall.
For consumers who want to know if they will be able to break the speed limits in self-driving cars, NHTSA says the answer is no. All HAVs will be required to obey speed limits in addition to all traffic laws of each state, county and city.
Safety regulators say the next steps involve plans to gather input from vehicle manufacturers, technology companies, suppliers, consumer advocacy groups and the public regarding HAVs.