NHSTA Drops Manual Control Requirements in Self-Driving Vehicles

The United States’ NHSTA dropped a manual control requirement in vehicles capable of full autonomy. It noted that the rules requiring manual controls were written decades ago, when self-driving vehicles were purely a matter of science fiction.

Automated vehicles that meet Level 5 standards the SAE’s chart titled “Levels of Driving Automation” would need little to no human input in nearly all driving conditions. They would be able to drive in low visibility conditions and make most decisions on their own.

General Motors’ Cruise department is developing its own self-driving software in a likely bid to compete with Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving software. It petitioned the NHTSA for permission to build autonomous vehicles without brakes or steering wheels.

Tesla had also floated the possibility of building at least one vehicle model without a steering wheel. It also has a “steering wheel” design that closely resembles the steering yokes used by professional racecar drivers.

According to Elon Musk, Tesla made development of its driver assist programs a priority after one fatal accident in which the vehicle owner fell asleep at the wheel. The owner reportedly blamed the Tesla vehicle’s “new car smell” for lulling him to sleep in a lawsuit that was quickly dismissed.

Since then, Autopilot has shown its ability to respond to “real world” driving conditions in situations such as a drunk driver passing out at the wheel.

That hasn’t stopped regulators from probing Autopilot and politicians from calling for an investigation after at least one fatal wreck in which Autopilot was initially blamed. However, Tesla maintains usage logs for vehicles equipped with Autopilot and FSD and was able to establish that Autopilot was not active at the time of the wreck.

Even some engineers admitted that Tesla and Musk “overstated” FSD’s capacity. The company does issue routine software updates to add or refine features or eliminate software bugs in previous versions, but it’s not exactly at Level 5 yet.

Tesla aims to incentivize its vehicle owners to practice good driving habits and judicious use of its driver assist programs by requiring a driving test before owners can use FSD and introducing an insurance program with dynamic premium rates based on real-time driving habits in Texas.

Will automakers be able to produce fully automated vehicles capable of meeting the SAE’s Level 5 standards on the “Levels of Driving Automation” charts? In an ideal situation, fully automated vehicles that don’t need input from a driver would be considered normal.

Until full automation does become the norm, a Level 5 vehicle would have to “know” how to cope with an environment that includes unpredictable human drivers. Human error is a factor in most fatal accidents. Even when Autopilot is active, there’s a high chance that any serious accident would have been the fault of the driver of another vehicle who did something that the Autopilot wasn’t ready for.

Like electric vehicles, Tesla got other automakers to take “full self-driving” seriously instead of just thinking of it as a science fiction thing. For once, the NHTSA got ahead of the game by saying that manual control would not be necessary in a Level 5, fully autonomous vehicle.