Feds Release Guidelines For Self-Driving Cars, But Does It Really Matter Yet?

Image courtesy of Phil's 1stPix

While we might dream of a day where we can sit behind the wheel of a vehicle reading a book or watching a movie, all while the car drives itself, that day remains many moons away. But here’s the thing about technology — it changes, and it changes quickly. To that end, federal safety regulators are working to ensure that carmakers create safe systems to prepare for the day that self-driving vehicles are actually on the road. There’s a catch, though: It’s all voluntary. 

Aren’t There Self-Driving Cars Now?

I’m sure you’re thinking, “But what about Tesla’s Autopilot, doesn’t that count as a self-driving car that’s already on the road?”

Tesla’s Autopilot feature is not entirely self-driving. Instead, it is considered a semi-autonomous assisted-steering feature that isn’t totally hands-off.

Currently, Autopilot will let vehicles “steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control.” It also has other features, like auto-braking, collision avoidance, and automated parallel parking.

Last year, Tesla rolled out a new feature that gives the car the ability to be fully autonomous, but that technology isn’t live right now.

The system will feature eight surround cameras that provide 360 degrees of visibility around the car; 12 ultrasonic sensors that will allow for the detection of objects at nearly twice the distance of the current Autopilot system; and a forward-facing radar that can process driving conditions such as fog, rain, and dust.

Despite launching the pumped-up feature, Tesla said at the time that the system won’t actually be turned on anytime soon.

“Before activating the features enabled by the new hardware, we will further calibrate the system using millions of miles of real-world driving,” the company said.

Looking To The Future

As we can see with Tesla’s technology and the plethora of self-driving vehicles being tested — with drivers behind the wheel — by automakers and technology companies around the country, it’s clear that one day, maybe in the not-too-distant future, fully autonomous vehicles will be a reality.

To that end, federal safety regulators and lawmakers are already working to craft guidelines and regulations related to these future vehicles.

On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released “Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety 2.0” [PDF], a guidance that simply gives recommendations for carmakers, tech companies, and state regulators on how to deal with self-driving vehicles.

It’s All Voluntary

The guidance, which is a revision of a similar policy released by the previous administration in Sept. 2016, is completely voluntary, and the companies won’t face any kind of action if they don’t comply with the suggestions.

The voluntary guidance contains 12 priority safety elements that carmakers are urged to consider and use in the design of their systems.

The 12 elements include determining where the vehicle can operate safely, how vehicles can recover from errors or obstacles, how vehicle safety is validated, and how to ensure cybersecurity.

But again, if they don’t use these elements, that’s fine too, according to the DOT and NHTSA.

Additionally, the guidance encourages, but doesn’t require, companies to disclose Voluntary Safety Self-Assessments demonstrating their varied approaches to achieving safety in the testing and deployment of ADSs.

While the 2.0 guidance incorporates much of the same points as the previous policy — which was also voluntary — it does eliminate elements related to privacy.

Related: How Much Control Do You Actually Have Over Your Private Data?

The agencies note that “privacy is not directly relevant to motor vehicle safety,” adding that the Federal Trade Commission is charged with protecting consumer privacy.

Actual Rules Needed

While NHTSA and the DOT note that self-driving vehicles aren’t arriving in showrooms tomorrow, they are coming.

With that in mind, consumer advocates urge the agencies to take real, tangible steps to oversee automated vehicles.

Our colleagues at Consumers Union called the latest guidelines a weakening in oversight, adding that the guidance is a step backward for consumer safety.

“Self-driving cars have enormous potential to improve mobility and safety on our roads,” David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union, said in a statement. “But innovation must be accompanied by sensible, strong federal oversight. The Department of Transportation should be asking more of automakers, not less.”

NHTSA should work to protect consumers and ensure that automated systems work as they should, Friedman notes. As it stands, the new guidelines minimize the information carmakers provide, which could prevent the agency from determining when a system puts consumer safety at risk.

“It wouldn’t serve consumers if NHTSA were to be an agency that only takes action once people are being injured or killed,” William Wallace, policy analyst for CU, said in a statement.

Other Measures

NHTSA and the DOT aren’t the only ones working — even in a hands-off manner — to address self-driving technology and safety.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Self-Drive Act, intended to bolster and increase the creation of self-driving features and vehicles based on the notion that such vehicles would one day make the roads safer.

However, the legislation promotes the creation of these safety systems by allowing NHTSA to provide companies with exemptions to safety standards. Currently, NHTSA provides about 2,500 exemptions to companies each year; under the legislation, that number would increase to 100,000 exemptions in three years.

Lawmakers believe that such exemption will bolster carmakers’ ability to test and develop new self-driving technology.

Our colleagues at CU, on the other hand, note [PDF] that while the Act would benefit consumer safety there are concerns that it would also open regulatory gaps and fail to adequately protect consumers from vehicle safety hazards.

CU recommends that no exemptions should be made that would undermine impact protection for occupants, and exemptions would be limited to equipment required exclusively for the driving task that can be replaced by automation.