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DOT issues Federal Policy for safe testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles (SAE levels 3-5)

The US Department of Transportation issued Federal policy for highly automated vehicles (HAVs)—i.e., SAE Levels 3-5 vehicles with automated systems that are responsible for monitoring the driving environment as defined by SAE J3016.

Although the primary focus of the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy is on highly automated vehicles, or those in which the vehicle can take full control of the driving task in at least some circumstances, portions of the policy also apply to lower levels of automation, including some of the driver-assistance systems already being deployed by automakers today. The newly released policy embodies four key elements:

  • 15 Point Safety Assessment. The Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles for manufacturers, developers and other organizations includes a 15 point “Safety Assessment” for the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.

  • Model State Policy. This section presents a clear distinction between Federal and State responsibilities for regulation of highly automated vehicles, and suggests recommended policy areas for states to consider with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles.

  • NHTSA’s Current Regulatory Tools. This discussion outlines NHTSA’s current regulatory tools that can be used to ensure the safe development of new technologies, such as interpreting current rules to allow for greater flexibility in design and providing limited exemptions to allow for testing of nontraditional vehicle designs in a more timely fashion.

  • Modern Regulatory Tools. This discussion identifies new regulatory tools and statutory authorities that policymakers may consider in the future to aid the safe and efficient deployment of new lifesaving technologies.

The 15-point Safety Assessment. The 15-point Safety Assessment outlines objectives on how to achieve a robust design. It allows for varied methodologies as long as the objective is met. The Guidance asks manufacturers and other entities to document how they are meeting each topic area in the guidance. The issues include:

  • Operational Design Domain: How and where the HAV is supposed to function and operate;

  • Object and Event Detection and Response: Perception and response functionality of the HAV system;

  • Fall Back (Minimal Risk Condition): Response and robustness of the HAV upon system failure;

  • Validation Methods: Testing, validation, and verification of an HAV system;

  • Registration and Certification: Registration and certification to NHTSA of an HAV system;

  • Data Recording and Sharing: HAV system data recording for information sharing, knowledge building and for crash reconstruction purposes;

  • Post-Crash Behavior: Process for how an HAV should perform after a crash and how automation functions can be restored;

  • Privacy: Privacy considerations and protections for users;

  • System Safety: Engineering safety practices to support reasonable system safety;

  • Vehicle Cybersecurity: Approaches to guard against vehicle hacking risks;

  • Human Machine Interface: Approaches for communicating information to the driver, occupant and other road users;

  • Crashworthiness: Protection of occupants in crash situations;

  • Consumer Education and Training: Education and training requirements for users of HAVs;

  • Ethical Considerations: How vehicles are programmed to address conflict dilemmas on the road; and

  • Federal, State and Local Laws: How vehicles are programmed to comply with all applicable traffic laws.

Framework for DOT’s Vehicle Performance Guidance. It is the manufacturer or other entity’s responsibility to determine their system’s AV level in conformity with SAE International’s published definitions.

The framework applies to both test and production vehicles. It applies to both automated systems’ original equipment, and to replacement equipment or updates (including software updates/upgrades) to automated systems. It includes areas that are cross-cutting (i.e., areas that apply to all automation functions on the vehicle), as well as areas that apply to each specific automation function on the vehicle.

Cross-cutting areas include: data recording and sharing, privacy, system safety, cybersecurity, Human-Machine Interface (HMI), crashworthiness, and consumer education and training.

Areas that are specific to each vehicle automation function are: description of the Operational Design Domain (ODD), Object and Event Detection and Response (OEDR), and fall back minimum risk condition. Click to enlarge.

Proactive. Moving beyond the traditional US auto regulatory approach of reactive, post-sale enforcement of safety standards, the policy is a proactive measure. A March 2016 study by DOT’s Volpe notes that current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards do not directly address automated vehicle technologies. Those standards can take many years to develop and are traditionally only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration. Instead, the automated vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as DOT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front-end of development.

New technologies developed in the 20th century, like seat belts and air bags, were once controversial but have now saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. This is the first in a series of proactive approaches, including the release of a rule on Vehicle to Vehicle communications, which will bring lifesaving technologies to the roads safely and quickly while leaving innovators to dream up new safety solutions.

—US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx

The new policy is a product of public input and stakeholder discussions, including two open public meetings this year and an open public docket for comments. The Department is soliciting additional public comments for the next 60 days on the policy. Through a series of next steps and in response to public comments, DOT intends to update the policy annually.

Simultaneously with this policy, NHTSA is releasing a final enforcement guidance bulletin clarifying how its recall authority will apply to automated vehicle technologies. In particular, it emphasizes that semi-autonomous driving systems that fail to adequately account for the possibility that a distracted or inattentive driver-occupant might fail to retake control of the vehicle in a safety-critical situation may be defined as an unreasonable risk to safety and subject to recall.


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I am very encouraged by the progress lawmakers are doing about autonomous vehicles. They are really working fast this time and nearly all parties want it to happen. There are no bipartisan battles on this one and that is really good. It makes it so much easier and I am confident the legislation will be ready now before the driverless tech is commercially ready by 2020. A year ago I imagined the tech would be ready by 2020 but the legislation would not allow it until it was made by 2022 or 2023. Now it seems the picture is reversed. This is fantastic. Sometimes the politicians and the bureaucrats actually do know how to get things done super fast.


Hasten slowly?

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