The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) division of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today detailed the Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (AV TEST), a program that will provide an online, public-facing forum for sharing automated driving system on-road testing activities. When live, NHTSA’s website will show whether companies or authorities are testing autonomous vehicles in certain areas within the U.S., and it will provide information about what sort of testing is taking place.
The program’s unveiling follows the publication of a poll by Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) suggesting a majority of Americans don’t think autonomous cars are “ready for primetime.” Indeed, measuring the relative safety and capability of self-driving systems remains a challenge. The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) mandates that companies testing driverless cars on public roads in the state disclose how often human drivers were forced to take control of their vehicles (known as a “disengagement”), but critics have long asserted it leaves wiggle room for companies to withhold information about certain failures.
Companies including Beep, Cruise, Fiat Chrysler, Nuro, Toyota, Uber, Local Motors, Navya, and Waymo have signed up for AV TEST so far, along with eight states — California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah. In addition to the forum, participants will gain access to online mapping tools that pinpoint on-road testing locations and optionally share testing activity data like vehicle types, uses, dates, frequency, vehicle counts, and routes. For their parts, state and local governments will be able to provide information about vehicle operation regulations, emergency response plans, and legislation.
AV TEST is open to all stakeholders involved in the development and testing of vehicles equipped with automated driving systems in the U.S., according to NHTSA deputy administrator James Ellen.
“Educating drivers about the automated driving systems is important, because there are many misconceptions about vehicles equipped with these technologies, their availability, and their capabilities,” Ellen said during a briefing with members of the media this afternoon. “For starters, there are no vehicles with automated driving systems available for sale to the public today, any vehicle that the public can buy today cannot drive itself. It requires an active attentive and fully engaged driver, ready to act. The AV TEST initiative is the first platform connecting the public with manufacturers, developers, operators, and all levels of government to voluntarily share information about the on-road testing and development of prototype automated driving systems.”
AV TEST immediately drew criticism from some advocacy groups who argued that the guidelines don’t go far enough. In a statement, Advocates for Highway Safety’s Cathy Chase said the program’s voluntary, unenforceable nature and lack of minimum performance standards will be “to the peril” of road users.
“Unfortunately, NHTSA’s reliance on voluntary industry actions to accomplish this is a recipe for disaster,” Chase said. “It has been reported that at least 80 companies are testing autonomous vehicles. Yet, only 20 have submitted safety assessments to the U.S. DOT under the current voluntary guidelines, iterations of which have been in place for nearly four years … Additionally, over that time, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated six crashes involving vehicles with autonomous capabilities uncovering serious problems, including inadequate countermeasures to ensure driver engagement, reliance on voluntary reporting, lack of standards, poor corporate safety culture, and a misguided oversight approach by NHTSA … Instead the U.S. DOT should fulfill its responsibility make our roads safe and develop minimum performance standards. These baselines will protect the billions of dollars autonomous vehicle developers have invested, help foster public confidence, and inspire innovation to exceed them.”
Momentum at the federal level regarding autonomous vehicle regulations remains largely stalled. The DOT’s recently announced Automated Vehicles 4.0 (AV 4.0) guidelines request — but don’t mandate — regular assessments of self-driving vehicle safety, and they permit those assessments to be completed by automakers themselves rather than by standards bodies. (Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety also criticized AV 4.0 for its vagueness.) And while the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would create a regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles, dubbed the SELF DRIVE Act, it has yet to be taken up by the Senate. In fact, the Senate two years ago tabled a separate bill (the AV START Act) that made its way through committee in November 2017.
That said, there’s been recent progress at the NHTSA, which in March moved to make changes in standards regarding autonomous vehicles. Those standards could clarify that all forward-seated passengers in a driverless vehicle should receive the same level of protection as someone seated in the front passenger seat does now, which might change how airbags deploy on what had been known as the driver-side position. They might also give companies trying to create autonomous vehicles more leeway when approaching federal standards that might not apply to them, like those that refer to a driver’s seat or a steering wheel.
Elsewhere, Nuro received a two-year autonomous vehicle exemption from the NHTSA — the first ever granted — to support deployments without the equipment required for passenger vehicles. The agency said Nuro’s vehicle qualified because of its low speed (25 miles per hour maximum) and because it’s designed solely to carry goods rather than human occupants. The company is only permitted to produce and deploy up to 5,000 vehicles during the exemption period, and it will have to report information about the vehicles’ operation (including the automated driving system) and conduct outreach in communities where it will deliver goods.