NHTSA’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy: Accelerating the Next Revolution In Roadway Safety

November 15, 2016

Sofie E. Miller, Howard Beales, & Daniel R. Pérez

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Federal Automated Vehicles Policy establishes how the agency will address driverless car technology through its current regulatory framework and identifies new regulatory tools that could be used in the future.

NHTSA’s policy establishes comprehensive vehicle performance guidance for vehicles with automated technology. To comply, regulated entities should first ensure compliance with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), and then address each of eleven cross-cutting areas including privacy, data collection, vehicle cybersecurity, ethical considerations, and federal, state, and local laws. NHTSA requests that regulated entities voluntarily submit reports to the agency on how their vehicles address these eleven cross-cutting areas, and to do so at least four months before new automated features are tested on public roads.

NHTSA also considers several new regulatory tools and authorities, including the potential for pre-market approval of automated vehicle technology. To ensure that these standards do not impede developing technology, NHTSA also considers imposing “sunsets” on rules setting FMVSS.

Considering the impact of this policy guidance on innovation and social welfare is critical because the safety gains from highly automated vehicles (HAVs) could be significant. There were 35,092 deaths on U.S. roadways in 2015 alone, and the pace of these deaths has increased by 10% in the first half of 2016. What’s more, 94% of crashes can be tied to a human choice or error. HAVs hold the promise to reduce fatalities from crashes due to human mistakes and provide transportation independence to people with disabilities, aging communities, and households without the means to own a car.

Attention to innovation is particularly important because HAVs are highly likely to pose lower risks than the vehicles they replace. They will, of course, pose risks. Excessive attempts to reduce those risks, however, are likely to slow the introduction of products that have the net effect of reducing an even larger risk. Overregulation will make the perfect the enemy of the good, and the numerous victims of human error on the road will pay the price.