Autonomous vehicles don’t need steering wheels, brake pedals, drivers’ seats, or other manual driving controls meant for us meat machines any longer.
New rules announced late Thursday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reverse the agency’s previous requirements for cars to pass crash standards. The NHTSA said the updated regulations were meant to amend “wording that has or will become obsolete as applied to new design,” while still retaining comparable safety standards. Previous rules presumed vehicles would come equipped with a driver’s seat, steering wheel, and an accompanying steering column, however, the emergence of new classes of vehicles built specifically with automation in mind make these controls “logically unnecessary,” according to the NHTSA. The new standards could pave the way for more vehicle designs that emphasized entertainment and leisure opportunities in AVs.
NHTSA’s updated rules drew praise from the Transportation Secretary and failed presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who described the changes as necessary for continued autonomous vehicle innovation.
“Through the 2020s, an important part of USDOT’s safety mission will be to ensure safety standards keep pace with the development of automated driving and driver assistance systems,” Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new rule is an important step, establishing robust safety standards for ADS-equipped vehicles.”
The agency reportedly received 45 comments from vehicle and equipment manufacturers, AV developers, industry associations, consumer advocates, and many others since first proposing the new rules back in March 2020. While many of those commenters reportedly supported the NHTSA’s proposal, others balked and said the issue was still “premature.”
“[NHTSA] acknowledges that uncertainty continues to exist around the development and potential deployment of ADS-equipped vehicles,” the agency said in a statement. “Nevertheless, NHTSA believes it is appropriate to finalize this action at this time in anticipation of emerging ADS vehicle designs that NHTSA has seen in prototype form.”
Regulators, both throughout the 155-page rule and in a statement afterward, tried to reassure the public these rules definitely would not come at the expense of public safety.
“As the driver changes from a person to a machine in automated driving system [ADS]-equipped vehicles, the need to keep the humans safe remains the same and must be integrated from the beginning,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement. “With this rule, we ensure that manufacturers put safety first.”
Nailing the safety question will be crucial for the AV development. A large swath of consumers are still generally on the fence. Nearly half of U.S. consumers surveyed by Deloitte in 2020 said they agreed that vehicles would not be safe. That figure was two percentage points lower than the previous year but a tick up from 2018. Not exactly a confidence boost.
The rule changes come as a win for many autonomous vehicles companies frustrated with regulators’ previous language, but the NHTSA actually stooped short of accepting more radical changes proposed by Tesla. The agency shot down Tesla’s comment asking it to change its definition to include the ability for drivers to control vehicles using tablets or other mobile devices
“NHTSA does not agree with Tesla that it is necessary at this time that the definition for manually operated driving controls to account for the use of tablets or cell phones to control the vehicle,” NHTSA wrote. “The new definition is meant to encompass traditional driving controls, not future controls that have not yet been developed.”