Feds to release new autonomous car guidelines in July

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Novi — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will release in July guidelines for autonomous vehicles designed to be more flexible than existing rules.

Senior Administrator Mark Rosekind on Wednesday said stagnant regulations will not work when it comes to automated and autonomous vehicle technologies, which are evolving faster than legislation.

“What is unusual is everybody expects regulation comes out and that’s what it is forever, and NHTSA’s job is react and enforce it,” he said during a panel at the TU-Automotive auto-tech conference in Novi. “That will not work with this area. I think we’re going to have something different in July.”

Next month’s announcements from U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Rosekind said, will focus on four main areas: Deployment and operational guidance; modeling state policies for uniform regulations; structuring interpretations of exemptions to be a more specific process; and identifying “new tools of authorities” to help accelerate getting new technologies on American roadways.

Automakers particularly have pushed for NHTSA to release standards that states could follow regarding the testing and implementation of self-driving vehicles.

“It’s critical,” said Henry Bzeih, Kia Motors America managing director of connected car and chief technology strategist. “If you see what’s going on at the state level, not all states are on board ... in supporting this technology.

“And even the states that do support have stipulations.”

Many states are opting to set their own regulations for self-driving car testing. Late last year, California issued draft regulations that would require self-driving cars to have a steering wheel and a licensed driver to take over if the vehicle technology failed.

Rosekind did not provide specifics on the guidelines, which follow more than 60 public comments and documents on self-driving vehicles being submitted to the federal vehicle safety watchdog from automakers, tech companies and other parties.

The commentary, which included public sessions in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco in April, show the levels of complexity involving self-driving vehicles — from legal and regulatory to questions such as whether vehicles that can drive themselves should require an operator with a driver’s license, or even if the vehicles need steering wheels and brake pedals.

The government, Rosekind said, may need to eventually have a separate or spin-off division of NHTSA to handle automated and autonomous vehicles.

“Right now, at least we have a vision that can get us where we need to be safety-wise,” he said, adding he will leave the agency in January. “The agency will probably be around for a long time. The question is whether it needs to expand its authorities or actually have other entities that will go after the issues.”

Rosekind was on a panel with Nevada Department of Motor Vehicle Administrator Jude Hurin and James Fackler, Michigan Department of State assistant administrator for the Customer Services Administration.

Nevada has been a leader in allowing autonomous vehicles to be tested on its roadways, while broad legislation recently was introduced in the Michigan Senate that would allow manufacturers to produce and sell self-driving cars here and clear the way for their use on state roadways.

Self-driving cars, according to Rosekind, must increase safety at least twofold to really help reduce vehicle fatalities in the United States.

“We need to set a higher bar if we expect safety to actually be a benefit here as opposed to just an equivalency,” he said.

Rosekind said the number of vehicle fatalities in 2015 is trending higher than the 32,675 people who died in motor vehicle crashes in 2014. He called the fatalities “unacceptable.”

Self-driving vehicles won’t just be used to increase safety. Hurin said Nevada in September is “expanding and streamlining” its legislation to allow for handicap individuals without driver’s licenses to operate test vehicles.

“It’s expanding and it’s growing, and we’re excited about it,” he said, adding state officials are working on “cutting-edge” technologies with an unnamed company.

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