During the final two weeks of Donald Trump’s administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched several new autonomous vehicle (AV) regulations that could set standards for the future of that technology.

Driverless vehicles

The largest changes clarify rules for vehicles intended to be driven by computers, not people – cars without steering wheels, pedals, or other controls. The new language exempts such vehicles from most regulations geared toward human-driven cars. Even the designation of a driver’s seat changes if the car has no steering wheel. Vehicles not intended to carry passengers, such as grocery delivery vehicles from Nuro, would be exempted from seatbelt and airbag requirements.

“With more than 90% of serious crashes caused by driver error, it’s vital that we remove unnecessary barriers to technology that could help save lives,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator James Owens says. “We do not want regulations enacted long before the development of automated technologies to present an unintended and unnecessary barrier to innovation and improved vehicle safety.”

To support the growth of those autonomous systems, NHTSA is also expanding Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (AV TEST) from a pilot program to a full program, moving from nine states and nine companies participating to more than 52 organizations partnering to study the efficacy and safety of different autonomous technologies.

“AV TEST will help participants and the public understand the capabilities and limitations of these technologies, to share best practices, and to promote healthy competition for safer practices and information sharing that the public can review and compare,” Owens says.

The Joe Biden administration will be responsible for crafting implementation of the new rules and test programs.

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Vehicle safety

In addition to AV regulations, NHTSA is moving forward with updates to the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), the rules that require basic safety gear such as airbags and seatbelts in cars. The administration is seeking public comment on updated rules that call for studying mandates on four advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

  • Blind-spot warning – Common on luxury cars, systems use cameras to warn drivers if another vehicle or obstacle is in an area not well covered by mirrors.
  • Blind-spot intervention – If a driver attempts to move into an area that the warning system has identified as occupied, the car can steer away from the potential impact or brake.
  • Lane-keeping support – Cameras monitor road stripes and warn inattentive drivers if they are wandering in and out of lanes.
  • Pedestrian automatic emergency braking – New vehicles must include systems that automatically brake if they sense they are about to collide with other vehicles. New rules could mandate updates that spot pedestrians as well.

Common practice

Finalizing regulations in the last days of an outgoing administration is not at all rare. Barack Obama’s administration, for example, finalized fuel economy rules following Trump’s election, before his inauguration, in an attempt to cement higher standards. Trump countermanded Obama’s rules, launching a still-ongoing legal battle between environmental groups, state regulators in California, and the federal government. https://nuro.ai; https://www.nhtsa.gov