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The US Opts for Self-Certification of Autonomous Vehicles

US's highway safety authority amends crashworthiness regulations to exempt purely automated vehicles from existing crashworthiness standards.

Just before Christmas the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released their Notice Regarding the Applicability of NHTSA FMVSS Test Procedures to Certifying Manufacturers. The notice states that a manufacturer can certify their vehicles towards the Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) even if NHTSA cannot replicate the certification using the suggested procedures. This effectively enables manufacturers to self-certify their autonomous vehicles using their own standards and procedures. The update is helpful to autonomous vehicle developers since the existing FMVSS certification processes assume a manually driven vehicle and the existence of steering wheel, rearview mirrors and so on – while such instruments can be superfluous for an autonomous vehicle. From now on a manufacturer can use a certification process of their own choice when guaranteeing compliance with FMVSS.

“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,” Deputy Administrator James Owens said. “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.”

This rule update is one of several regulatory actions taken by NHTSA to modernize vehicle standards for new technologies.
 

Personal comment

We have been discussing the issue of self-certification within our team and find NHTSA’s new stance intriguing since it resonates with the CE-marking approach used for self-certification of products on the European market.

In short, to CE-mark a product the manufacturer needs to identify the applicable rules, standards and product-specific requirements, such as for machines or electro-magnetic radiation levels. Then the manufacturer verifies that the product meets the requirements, and lists the possible risks associated with operating the machine (e.g. don’t bathe with your hair dryer). After that the manufacturer owns the right to stamp the CE-mark on the product.

The current CE-mark process is applicable for autonomous machines (such as trucks) within the EU but does not apply to passenger vehicles since they fall under different rules governed by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). However, our team holds the view that CE-marking would seem to apply to autonomous vehicles if they only operate in autonomous mode within confined areas. Under such circumstances there are no applicable vehicle regulations and the appropriate way to ensure product safety is by self-certification through CE-marking.

Over time self-certification will probably drive the emergence of new standards for both technologies and processes to enable large-scale production as well as certification but it might also influence future European regulations regarding how to ensure the safety of autonomous vehicles. Stating that autonomous vehicles can be self-certified and CE-marked is one thing, actually doing it is something entirely different. But if the manufacturers in the US show that they can self-certify their autonomous vehicles and thereby accelerate their innovation process, it might tip the scales so that self-certification becomes the future for European vehicle manufacturers as well.  

Written by Håkan Burden,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Mobilitet i transformation)

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