September has been a big month for autonomous vehicles. Earlier this month Uber began testing its first fleet of self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, and just last week the U.S. Department of Transportation released the first federal policy for self-driving cars. The federal government, automotive manufacturers, fleet managers, and drivers are all looking forward to one key benefit of self-driving vehicles: improved safety.
On Page 5 of the 116-page policy released last Monday, the Executive Summary states, “For DOT, the excitement around highly automated vehicles (HAVs) starts with safety. Two numbers exemplify the need. First, 35,092 people died on U.S. roadways in 2015 alone. Second, 94 percent of crashes can be tied to a human choice or error. An important promise of HAVs is to address and mitigate that overwhelming majority of crashes.”
That said, the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy was released not only to ensure that the self-driving cars developed are safe, but also to break down barriers that could interfere with rolling out this life-saving technology to the public.
“The NHTSA guidelines are an affirmation of the lifesaving potential of autonomous vehicles and is not intended to create roadblocks or slow down bringing these vehicles to market,” said Dennis Straight, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Donlen.
Breaking down the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy
In order to develop the policy for HAVs, the Department of Transportation consulted with leaders and experts from several industry, safety and state government organizations. The policy is broken down into four main sections:
- Guidelines for the safe pre-deployment design, development and testing of autonomous vehicles, including a 15-point safety assessment that the DOT is asking HAV manufacturers to submit to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
- Framework for establishing consistent requirements by state
- Explanation of how current NHTSA regulations apply to autonomous vehicles
- Setting the stage for future tools and authorities that will help the Agency address the unique safety challenges of self-driving cars more efficiently
In this article, we will mainly be discussing the safety guidelines set out for the development of HAVs in the first section of the DOT’s policy. The 15-point safety checklist that manufacturers are being urged to opt into covers areas such as data recording and sharing, privacy, how, when, and where the vehicle should operate, how its object and event detection and response works, fall back measures in the event of a malfunction, what happens in the event of a crash, and more.
By following this assessment, the industry ensures that their autonomous vehicles meet cybersecurity, crash protection, object detection and testing objectives.
“Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow,” President Barack Obama wrote in a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s why my administration is rolling out new rules of the road for automated vehicles – guidance that the manufacturers developing self-driving cars should follow to keep us safe. And we’re asking them to sign a 15-point safety checklist showing not just the government, but every interested American, how they’re doing it.”
Sharing data in the name of safety
The amount of data that federal regulators are requesting manufacturers to share is nearly unprecedented not only for the automotive industry, but for the Silicon Valley technology companies that are entering the space as well. However, according to an article for Automotive News by Dane Hull and David Welch, regulators have modeled the policy for driverless vehicles after the Federal Aviation Administration, which does collect data from airlines using a third-party repository system in order to ensure the safety of passengers.
In that same article Hull and Welch explain that the guidelines set forth in the 15-point safety assessment are voluntary, and regulators are asking, not requiring companies to share their data. The hope is that by sharing data about safety challenges and dangerous incidents, manufacturers can learn and improve based on each other’s mistakes.
“These guidelines have been anticipated and are generally welcomed by the industry as they confirm that the government is solidly behind this technology and attempting to bring more order to the regulation process,” said Straight.
The Federal Automated Vehicles Policy released this month is not intended to be the final, official policy on autonomous vehicles, but rather a living, breathing document which can be modified based on public feedback as development of HAVs progresses.
In his introductory message on Page 3 of the policy, Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation wrote, “We do not intend to write the final word on highly automated vehicles here. Rather, we intend to establish a foundation and a framework upon which future Agency action will occur.”
Impact on the fleet industry
With federal support now backing the industry, it’s expected that we’ll see the development of autonomous vehicles accelerate, and self-driving vehicles will become a reality for fleets sooner rather than later. When that happens, fleet management companies like Donlen will be at the forefront.
“Autonomous vehicles aren’t coming tomorrow, we’re 5-10 years away, but we want to be ready for it,” said Straight. “We’re not going to be surprised. This is going to be a massive change for the industry – a very positive change for the industry – just from the safety features alone, but also from a productivity perspective it’s going to be huge.”
As this exciting new technology develops, Donlen looks forward to helping our customers learn more about autonomous vehicles, prepare their fleets for the coming changes and ultimately get the most benefit from the new tools that will be available.