NHTSA and Autonomous Vehicles (Part 2): Will Regulations (Or Lack Thereof) Keep Automated Vehicle Development Stuck in Neutral?
This is part 2 of a series on NHTSA and Autonomous Vehicles. Part 1, published May 8, discussed the 5 levels of automation that NHTSA established, with Level 0 being a completely human controlled car and Level 4 being a vehicle that is capable of completely autonomous operation on the roads. Part 3 discusses NHTSA’s April 2016 public hearings on the subject.
I must confess that I am very much an optimist about the promise of Level 4 vehicles–and not just because I really, really love the idea of having the ability to do stuff on my commute to work without having to scramble for one of the 2 good seats on a Portland bus (yes, there are always only 2). The potential benefits that autonomous vehicles could bring are already well-publicized, so I won’t spend much time rehashing them here. Suffice it to say, in addition to the added convenience of AVs, such vehicles should prove to be far safer than vehicles controlled by human drivers and would provide persons with physical disabilities with a much greater ability to get around without having to rely on other people.
But while I am optimistic about the benefits of Level 4 vehicles, I am not optimistic that NHTSA–and NHTSA’s counterparts in other countries–will act quickly enough to ensure that Level 4 vehicles will be able to hit the road as soon as they could and should. As prior posts have noted, there are few federal regulations (i.e., rules that appear in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) that would present a significant obstacle to vehicles with up to Level 3 automation. But going from Level 3 to Level 4 may present difficulties–especially if, as in the case of Google’s self-driving car, the vehicle is designed in a manner (e.g., without a steering wheel, foot brakes, or transmission stick) that makes it impossible for a human driver to take control of the vehicle.
The difficulty of changing regulations to allow Level 4 vehicles creates a risk that automated vehicle technology will be stuck at Level 2 and Level 3 for a long time–and that might be worse than the current mix of Level 0, Level 1, and ‘weak’ Level 2 vehicles that fill most of the developed world’s roads.