On June 24th, John Bozzella sent a letter to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). John Bozzella is the CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an organization comprising the manufacturers, equipment suppliers and trade associates in the US. The Alliance is concerned since NHTSA plans to withdraw its initiative regarding a pilot program for AVs. The letter states that ”AV developers have invested billions of dollars in developing this technology and need a reliable and viable pathway to deployment in the United States […] At the same time, a focused pilot program with NHTSA’s oversight could foster additional public exposure to the technology and help us collectively overcome some of the existing consumer acceptance challenges associated with automated safety technologies”.
What NHTSA actually says is that it will continue working with regulating AVs, just not in the way the industry was hoping. The reason for discontinuing the pilot program is that there are existing initiatives that cover the proposed pilot program, and that the administration will continue the regulatory work in another form. An initiative named Expansion of Temporary Exemption Program to Domestic Manufacturers for Research, Demonstrations, and Other Purposes “proposes a new regulation allowing entities to request exemptions to operate nonconforming vehicles, on public roads for purposes of research, investigations, demonstrations, training, competitive racing events, show, or display, but not sale or lease”.
A comparison between the topics of the pilot program and the chosen alternative is that NHTSA refrains from further regulations for design for safe AV operations, design according to AV risk mitigations and AV design safety elements while focusing on exemptions from existing safety standards. In short, they will not define new safety standards for AVs but allow exemptions from existing ones for restricted purposes. It is therefore interesting that the Alliance’s letter focuses on NHTSA’s leadership in terms of data collection and communication with the public, two of the responsibilities of the administration, while not addressing explicitly the responsibilities for setting safety standards for new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment (to which manufacturers must certify compliance before sale or introduction into interstate commerce), enforcing those standards and overseeing the recall and remedy of noncompliant products. New safety designs would mean a federal standard across the US, leveraging the possibilities of large-scale market introduction.
A consequence of NHTSA’s decision is that designs either have to be traditional (i.e. with a steering-wheel) with complimentary self-certified AD systems, or that new designs (i.e. no steering-wheel) can only be used for experiments and demonstrations. Keeping a steering-wheel in your autonomous vehicle has a strong symbolic meaning and it doesn’t signify that the administration trusts the technology to deliver 24/7. It is also clear that the Alliance is not happy with that assessment and the implications for large-scale introduction of their products. But neither the Alliance nor the administration seem to keen to openly share their concerns and the underlying rationale. The administration does not disclose the findings of their internal research that led to the decision to drop the pilot program, while the Alliance focuses on the administration’s role in research and public engagement while what they really want are new vehicle standards. From my perspective it could have been a possibility for sharing insights to learn from each other and find a collaborative process reasonable for all parties. Instead, we seem a little further away from AVs taking a substantial share of the US market.
Written by Håkan Burden,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Mobilitet i transformation)