In a move that has been praised by automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has updated certain safety rules that pertain to automated driving systems, potentially opening the door for faster and cheaper adoption of self-driving cars. A statement issued by James C. Owens, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, reads that the agency will grant some safety standard exceptions to allow autonomous technology to develop.
One such exemption will apply to driverless cargo vehicles, which aren’t designed to carry humans at all. According to the new language, such machines won’t have to comply with “costly and design-limiting standards to protect human occupants,” which might speed up these vehicles’ appearance on the marketplace. One of the rule’s beneficiaries is the Nuro R2, a novel low-speed delivery vehicle designed to cart groceries or take-out deliveries to the customer. According to NHTSA, the exemption allows production of 2,500 vehicles per year for two years, meaning there might be 5,000 Nuros running around urban centers before long.
The move also clarifies some confusing language in NHTSA’s current safety standards. For example, in vehicles without primary operating controls (like the Cruise Origin), the front-left and front-right passenger positions will be subject to the same safety standards, since there isn’t a “driver’s seat” in such cars. And although the agency will temporarily grant some safety exceptions to cargo-only vehicles – in the name of innovation, according to Owens’ statement – NHTSA will nonetheless continue establishing a safety framework for when driverless passenger vehicles are ready for prime time.
“While it is plainly premature and unscientific to establish test metrics and performance standards before the technology becomes available and its capabilities and limitations are well-understood,” reads the statement, “it is nevertheless appropriate for NHTSA to begin the long-term process of envisioning how such regulations may be established and whether such future standards would be best articulated in a manner different from the way in which conventional FMVSS performance has been regulated.”
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That's not good enough for some safety advocates, like the Center for Auto Safety, however. Executive Director Jason Levine issued a statement following the rule change, saying, "NHTSA’s insistence of enabling the fast deployment of self-driving vehicles by amending rules written for cars with drivers, instead of recognizing the unique characteristics of autonomous technology, may be the fastest way to authorize the deployment of autonomous vehicles, but it is not a consumer safety–driven approach."