Self-driving vehicles allowed to skip some crash safety standards under new rule

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News
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Washington — The Trump Administration issued final rules Thursday that will allow self-driving vehicle manufacturers to skip certain federal crash safety requirements in vehicles that aren't designed to carry people.

It marks the first major update to existing federal safety standards to accommodate innovations in driverless technology. While no fully autonomous vehicles are for sale for consumers now, industry experts expect that market share for self-driving cars and trucks will expand in the coming decade.

A self-driving Nuro vehicle in front of a CVS Pharmacy

The rule — months in the making — also allows manufacturers more leeway to design self-driving vehicles without controls meant for human drivers, such as steering wheels or pedals.

It's expected to bring major cost savings to automakers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated the rule would save automakers and consumers $5.8 billion in 2050. 

“With more than 90% of serious crashes caused by driver error, it’s vital that we remove unnecessary barriers to technology that could help save lives,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator James Owens said in a statement. 

“We do not want regulations enacted long before the development of automated technologies to present an unintended and unnecessary barrier to innovation and improved vehicle safety.” 

The rule is likely the first of many aimed at speeding the deployment of self-driving vehicles. The agency noted, for example, that it is not yet changing any requirements related to warning signals, which the agency is still researching, vehicle-to-vehicle compatibility, which isn't addressed in existing standards for cars with drivers, or unconventional seating arrangements, which also require more research. 

Ariel Wolf, counsel to the Self-Driving Coalition, said Thursday that the NHTSA rule is a "very exciting" and "highly significant" development in safety rules for self-driving vehicles. The Coalition includes companies such as Ford Motor Co., Lyft Inc., Uber Technologies Inc., and Waymo LLC, which is a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc. 

"It took a lot of work on the part of NHTSA and we hope it's the first of several rulemakings that are forthcoming," he said. 

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a group representing major automakers that sell vehicles in the U.S., also said in a statement it "applauds NHTSA’s continued work to remove barriers to advanced technologies and safety systems." 

Safety advocates, however, have warned that self-driving vehicles need tailored rules aimed at protecting consumers in addition to exemptions from regulations designed for vehicles with human drivers. 

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in a statement that the long-term safety of the rule hasn't yet been determined, but said that the agency has not focused on Congressional safety mandates over the last four years. 

"NHTSA’s insistence of enabling the fast deployment of self-driving vehicles by amending rules written for cars with drivers, instead of recognizing the unique characteristics of autonomous technology, may be the fastest way to authorize the deployment of autonomous vehicles but it is not a consumer safety driven approach," he said.

NHTSA has faced criticism from safety advocates in recent years for implementing voluntary guidelines for manufacturers of self-driving vehicles, such as optional participation in a reporting system intended to track how developing vehicles perform in a dozen safety tests that are recommended by federal regulators. Critics argue the assessments should be mandatory and transparency required to increase public trust in self-driving vehicles. 

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @rbeggin

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