US scraps driverless car regulations, redefines concept of ‘driver’

US scraps driverless car regulations, redefines concept of ‘driver’

The US is scrapping autonomous tech regulations and opening up driverless car tests across the whole country, in a new policy that redefines the concept of a driver. Chris Middleton explains.  

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) is sweeping aside regulation of autonomous vehicle testing in favour of a system of voluntary standards.

The safety guidelines will be voluntary because federal regulation risks strangling the industry in red tape, according to a new report from the DOT, published on 4 October.

The document, Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0 (aka AV 3.0), advances the DOT’s commitment to supporting the “safe, reliable, efficient, and cost-effective integration of automation into the broader multimodal surface transportation system”.

However, the “right approach to achieving safety improvements begins with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and issuing voluntary guidance, rather than regulations that could stifle innovation”, it says.

Alongside this new national approach, the report urges state and local authorities to also remove obstacles to driverless technologies – such as “unnecessary and incompatible regulations” – and to support interoperability.

The DOT believes that the development of voluntary technical standards will be “an effective non-regulatory means to advance the integration of automation technologies into the transportation system”.

Where vehicle and transport regulations do exist, they will no longer assume that a commercial vehicle driver is a human being, or that a person is present during its operation.

The report says, “DOT will interpret and, consistent with all applicable notice and comment requirements, adapt the definitions of ‘driver’ and ‘operator’ to recognise that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may include an automated system.”

The DOT may also create safety-standard exceptions for autonomous system-equipped vehicles “that are relevant only when human drivers are present”.

This could allow for the removal of human control features, such as steering wheels, pedals, and mirrors – something requested by General Motors (GM), among others.

However, the DOT acknowledges that this approach may require “a more fundamental revamping of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) approach to safety standards for application to automated vehicles”.

The DOT has also announced that a study will be conducted on the complex impact of automated vehicles on the human workforce, with driving being the most common job in some US states.

Under the new approach, cars may not need steering wheels or human control features.

Testbeds scrapped

Under the new guidelines, the 10 sites across the US that are classed by the DOT as autonomous vehicle testing grounds will lose that distinction.

The aim is to open up testing across the whole of the country, not just on designated roads or test sites.

“Given the rapid increase in automated vehicle testing activities in many locations, there is no need for US DOT to favour particular locations or to pick winners and losers,” says the report. “Therefore, the Department no longer recognises the designations of ten Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds announced on January 19, 2017.”

What’s going on?

So why has the US decided to change the rules?

The report explains: “The pace of innovation in automated vehicle technologies is incompatible with lengthy rule-making proceedings and highly prescriptive and feature-specific or design-specific safety standards.

“Future motor vehicle safety standards will need to be more flexible and responsive, technology-neutral, and performance-oriented to accommodate rapid technological innovation.

“They may incorporate simpler and more general requirements designed to validate that an ADS [autonomous driving system] can safely navigate the real-world roadway environment, including unpredictable hazards, obstacles, and interactions with other vehicles and pedestrians who may not always adhere to the traffic laws or follow expected patterns of behaviour.

“Existing standards assume that a vehicle may be driven anywhere, but future standards will need to take into account that the operational design domain (ODD) for a particular ADS within a vehicle is likely to be limited in some ways that may be unique to that system.”

What about safety?

Far from making autonomous vehicles less safe, this new, more relaxed approach is designed to make all transport safer for human beings, according to the report.

An estimated 39,141 people lost their lives on all modes of US transport in 2017, says the DOT. The vast majority – 37,133 deaths – were in motor vehicle crashes. Ninety-four percent involved driver-related factors, such as distraction (3,500 deaths), impairment through drink or drugs (11,000 deaths), speeding (10,000 deaths), or illegal manoeuvres.

In short, human drivers are the biggest danger to other human beings, and so getting rid of the driver would appear to be the logical answer. In the long run, at least.

Automated vehicles and other assistive technologies may also provide substantial mobility benefits to people who can’t drive at all, adds the DOT.

For example, an estimated 25.5 million Americans have disabilities that make independent travel outside the home difficult, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. An estimated 3.6 million of them don’t leave their homes as a result.

The DOT believes that autonomous, on-demand services could open up personal transport options to these and other disadvantaged groups.

But are these the only reasons for the US’ new, more open approach to developing driverless systems?

Internet of Business says

No. The hidden answer to the question of why the US is relaxing the rules can be expressed in a single word: China.

Alongside its determination to lead the world in AI, automation, and robotics, China is also pursuing leadership in autonomous vehicles. By relaxing regulations, the US is hoping that innovation may spread nationwide and give the local automotive, tech, and ride-hailing industries the edge over their Asian competitors, as they explore deeper and deeper partnerships.

That said, many US companies in this space are partnering with carmakers and technology providers in Europe and Japan – and, in some cases, China. In the world of autonomous transport, collaboration is key. After all, a new vehicle needs to run on roads worldwide, not just in its country of origin.

Nevertheless, as the trade war deepens with China, potentially drawing in all Chinese exports to the US and ramping up tensions within the technology sector, the US is looking for every opportunity to seize the competitive advantage.

With public trust in driverless technologies low in the wake of two fatal test car crashes this year – stoked by media fears of robots, AI, drones, and cybersecurity risks – this is a risky manoeuvre for anyone at the wheel of the US economy. But it may be one that pays dividends in the long run.

A graphic from the report, illustrating the new US approach.