Driverless Cars Require More Study: NHTSA
June 1, 2013

NHTSA To Launch Four-Year Study Into Self-Driving Car Safety Issues

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Federal regulators are advising states not to approve the use of self-driving cars except for testing purposes, and are suggesting that drivers may need to obtain an upgraded license in order to operate the automated vehicles.

The declarations come as part of a policy statement released by the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Thursday.

In that document, the agency said that motor vehicles and the way that drivers interact with them is likely to “change significantly in the next ten to twenty years,” and that they had been asked by the developers of the vehicles and the states that currently permit testing them to address some of the safety and licensing issues surrounding the technology.

In what USA Today reporter James Healey calls “a rare move” for the NHTSA, which is “in charge of overall auto safety but doesn't like to take steps that might appear to cross swords with states over jurisdiction,” the agency is essentially advising states to slow down the approval process and conduct more testing.

As part of their policy announcement, the NHTSA said that they would be launching a four-year program to study self-driving cars in preparations for possible federal regulations, as well as to offer recommendations for state laws. Currently, the vehicles are not allowed on the road under real-world conditions, and are only being tested in California, Nevada and Florida — though Healey notes that other states have been considering joining their ranks.

When the cars are finally allowed on public roads, the NHTSA said that states should make sure that the person sitting behind the wheel has been properly licensed to drive an automated vehicle, according to John Ribeiro of IDG News Service. The driver, they said, should “be available at all times in order to operate the vehicle in situations in which the automated technology is not able to safely control the vehicle.”

As part of the regulations, the agency established five levels of potential driver interaction with their cars, ranging from Level 0 (the 100 percent manual vehicles currently on the road today) through Level 4 (which would require no human interaction beyond inputting a destination or navigational input).

There are currently no fully-automated, Level 4 cars being tested, notes Slashgear´s Chris Davies. The self-driving cars being built by Google are Level 3, which could require a driver to take over the controls should the autopilot declare itself incapable of managing current road conditions, and it is “that potential to be summoned back into the driver´s seat that has the NHTSA concerned,” Davies added.

Advocates of the technology have welcomed the policy statement, according to Slashgear.

“We're encouraged by the new automated vehicle technologies being developed and implemented today, but want to ensure that motor vehicle safety is considered in the development of these advances,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a statement. “As additional states consider similar legislation, our recommendations provide lawmakers with the tools they need to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology.”

“Whether we're talking about automated features in cars today or fully automated vehicles of the future, our top priority is to ensure these vehicles — and their occupants — are safe,” added Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Our research covers all levels of automation, including advances like automatic braking that may save lives in the near term, while the recommendations to states help them better oversee self-driving vehicle development, which holds promising long-term safety benefits.”