Regulating autonomous and high-tech vehicles today and beyond, explored by Andrew Williams.

With new legislation on the horizon, organisations in the autonomous vehicle and connected car sector are likely to face a range of new obligations in the near future.  So, what elements of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) autonomous vehicle guidelines are likely to form the basis for automated vehicle regulations?  What is the expected timetable for the forthcoming NHTSA wireless mandate governing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and how best should companies react to the ongoing changes?

Key Elements

According to Katie Thomson, partner and chair of the transportation group at law firm Morrison & Foerster, and previously general counsel to the US Department of Transportation, any proposed autonomous vehicle regulations from NHTSA are likely contain three key elements.

Firstly, a “flexible, performance-based safety standard that can be applied to a range of technologies; secondly, a safety management system approach in which the regulated community 'shares de-identified data' to identify and mitigate systemic risks; and thirdly, 'some basic requirements addressing cybersecurity”.  She also predicts that the preamble to the proposal is likely to “reiterate NHTSA's pre-emption of state law for safety purposes and set out best practices for managing privacy concerns”.

She added: “I do not believe that NHTSA is actively developing a proposed rule at this time.  Instead, I think that NHTSA remains in the process of analysing comments received on its proposed guidelines to inform its next steps.  NHTSA is also likely exploring potential legislative measures that could expand its authority and expedite the introduction of autonomous vehicle technologies.”

Thomson points out that NHTSA's proposed rule regarding vehicle to vehicle communications is intended to facilitate the introduction of technologies that allow vehicles to communicate with each other with respect to vehicle speed and positioning to avoid crashes. “The proposed rule is designed to establish a common platform that will ensure that all new cars can communicate with each other.  [It] contemplates that the requirements would be phased in over a four year period, with 50% of a manufacturer's fleet equipped two-three years after the rule is finalised, 75% within three-four years, and 100% after four years,” she adds.

Collaborative relationship

So, what actions should companies in the sector be taking now to ensure their technology is compliant with autonomous vehicle and vehicle to vehicle regulations in time?  In Thomson's view, the NHTSA has “traditionally enjoyed a collaborative relationship with its stakeholders and ensured that the regulated community has adequate time to comply”.  In this light, she is confident that, as long as companies are engaged in the rule making process and strategic planning, they should have “few, if any, challenges in meeting compliance deadlines”. 

Although the exact nature and extent of such ongoing “collaborative relationships” remains to be seen, there are clear signs that Thomson's confidence in the way the process will pan out appears to be justified.  In a recent press release, an NHTSA spokesperson noted that the planned autonomous vehicle policy is a “proactive measure” prompted by the fact that existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards “do not directly address automated vehicle technologies”. Although such standards can take many years to develop and are traditionally only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration, the spokesperson also confirms that 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”.

“I believe that rulemakings for both autonomous vehicles and V2V communications are necessary to establish a minimum level of safety, and to provide industry with a common set of standards and regulatory certainty.  Such a regulatory framework will support innovation and expedite deployment of life saving technologies,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Robin Harbage, director at Willis Towers Watson, confirms that insurers are busy focusing on the future of autonomous vehicles and “asking what the impact of regulation, consumer adoption and loss costs will be”.  That said, he stresses that what he describes as the “runway to autonomous vehicles” is a “much more important question for the sector over the next few years” and points out that automakers are “aggressively moving to manufacture vehicles with driver assistance systems that are the precursors to autonomous vehicles”. 

“Emergency braking, lane assistance, adaptive cruise control and blind spot alerts all work to improve vehicle safety by partially or completely shifting control of the automobile from the driver to the automated system.  These have already been shown to be highly effective in reducing crash frequency, although like airbags and other safety improvements, they add to the cost of vehicles and the subsequent cost of repairs,” he says.

“Insurers and regulators should focus on the savings from these systems and encouraging the rapid expansion of those systems that are effective in reducing accidents and saving lives.  These systems are largely not as controversial as fully autonomous vehicles but they are the clear roadmap that will take us from today to the fully autonomous future,” he adds.

[Tele.Williams.2017.01.26]

TU-Automotive Detroit 2017

07 Jun 2017 - 08 Jun 2017, NOVI, USA

The Undisputed Home of the Connected, Autonomous Car. With 150 speakers, 200 booths and 3000 attendees it's the world's biggest conference & exhibition dedicated to automotive tech. innovation.