Secretary Chao Revamps Federal Policies for Automated Vehicles (Pt. 1)

September 12, 2017

Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its first revision to the federal government’s policies around automated vehicles (AVs).

Speaking at the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a test site for advanced vehicle technologies, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao touted the document as a significant step towards a future of mobility that is safer, more efficient, and more accessible for all Americans.

“Motorists currently spend 6.9 billion hours per year sitting in traffic,” Chao said. “Reclaiming this time and money will put more money in taxpayer’s pockets and give them more time with their families.”

Appearing next to Chao were Mitch Bainwol, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind.

“There are 40,000 reasons a year” to improve roadway safety, said Bainwol, who proceeded to highlight the three key focuses of the document:

  1. Safety: NHTSA should continue to prioritize safety with appropriate backstops.
  2. Flexibility: The federal government and private sector should recognize that the regulatory process and the innovation process move at different speeds.
  3. Clarity: The guidance clarifies that the federal government will continue to take the lead on AVs, while still leaving room for states and localities to regulate safety on their roads.

Riccobono discussed how AVs could help to eliminate the “artificial barriers of the past” in vehicle design that long prevented people with disabilities from enjoying many of the mobility benefits of the personal automobile.

“With this opportunity comes great responsibility to ensure everyone can make use of these new innovations in mobility,” he said.

The document, titled Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety, is an update to the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy Statement (FAVP) released by the Obama Administration last September.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) received a total of 1,126 comments on the FAVP from industry, safety advocates, and other stakeholders – many of which called for clarification of vague language in its guidance for manufacturers and recommended policies for states to adopt.

“The public spoke and the department listened. Department received many comments on FAVP,” a NHTSA official told reporters in a call after the release. “Today’s updated voluntary guidance reflects those public comments and responds to them.”

The official said that this document fully replaces the FAVP, which will no longer be observed by USDOT. This is all in line with NHTSA’s larger objective to be flexible in its oversight of emerging technologies by providing guidance rather than prescriptive standards until technology is sufficiently mature.

“2.0 is not a static document,” Chao said, indicating that USDOT and NHTSA would continue to update the document annually. In fact, Chao said, the next update is already in the works: “The department, and all of its modal administrations, are preparing version 3.0 for release in 2018.”

The document acts as voluntary guidance for entities developing AVs – broadly defined as traditional auto manufacturers and other entities outfitting vehicles with automated capabilities for testing, commercial sale, and/or for use on public roadways.

In a departure from last year’s FAVP, the new document only provides guidance to manufacturers for how the federal government will oversee the development of AVs and provides recommendations for how states can regulate AVs without exceeding their authorities. This version eliminated sections three and four of the original FAVP, which respectively outlined NHTSA’s current authorities and proposed ways that NHTSA’s authorities could be expanded for regulating AVs.

In addition, A Vision for Safety focuses on vehicles that incorporate AV technologies at Levels 3-5 – which is a departure from the inclusion of Levels 2-5 in the FAVP.

The new document jettisons the “Safety Assessment Letter” concept (SAL) that was presented in the Obama FAVP. The SAL caused a significant amount of confusion since – even though NHTSA had indicated it was voluntary – some interpreted it to suggest that the agency still expected it to be submitted prior to testing.

After the first FAVP was released, NHTSA said it would publish further information about the SAL in the Federal Register, but it ultimately never did – and in the past year, no manufacturer sent in a SAL.

In this new document, NHTSA has scrapped the SAL in exchange for another method for manufacturers to communicate the capabilities of their AVs. NHTSA is now encouraging AV developers to each publish a Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment (VSSA) on their own that describes how they address the safety aspects of their AVs through industry best practices and their own best practices.

A NHTSA official called the VSSA a “much-needed clarification” of safety assessment letter in that it was not prescriptive, but instead focused on safety objectives. “It clarifies some of the confusion around the process that NHTSA has to approve safety assessment letters.”

NHTSA envisions the VSSA as a method for entities to provide concise information to the public about 12 aspects of their AVs and how they are – and will continue to be – developed:

  1. System Safety
  2. Operational Design Domain (ODD)
  3. Object and Event Detection and Response (OEDR)
  4. Fallback (Minimal Risk Condition)
  5. Validation Methods
  6. Human Machine Interface (HMI)
  7. Vehicle Cybersecurity
  8. Crashworthiness
  9. Post-Crash ADS Behavior
  10. Data Recording
  11. Consumer Education and Training
  12. Federal, State, and Local Laws

These may look familiar, as they were among the original 15 aspects in the SAL. Two particularly controversial parts of the last version – ethics and consumer privacy – were removed due to a lack of clarity around NHTSA’s expectations for these sections.

“We’re still acknowledging that more research needs to be done,” the NHTSA official said.

Stay tuned for an in-depth analysis of the model state policy section and the document, Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety, in its entirety in ETW later this week.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill