STYMIED BY OUTDATED STANDARDS
the usual Washington gridlock, autonomous vehicle technology has also been stymied by outdated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The FMVSS specify legal requirements such as passenger-car design and performance, regulate auto safety systems, and are crafted with human drivers in mind, not machines. Automakers have found it hard enough to get NHTSA to approve the latest
(and safest) headlight technology as part of the FMVSS, much less vehicles without a steering wheel and accelerator and brake pedals.
AV developers have found ways around the FMVSS. Speaking about Google’s first purposebuilt self-driving car, the tiny Firefly, Seval Oz—former head of business development for Google’s self-driving car project—says, “Once the decision was made to assemble a new vehicle, the issue became more FMVSS compliance. This is why we deferred to a lowspeed-compliant vehicle, which exempted it from requirements for high speed.”
But even with all its resources, Google quickly discovered that building cars in scale from scratch and only for low-speed purposes wasn’t feasible. And most automakers will want to leverage existing vehicle platforms to produce self-driving cars.
Although former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland notes that the FMVSS are designed to evolve over time, he acknowledges that for developers hoping to get AVs without a steering wheel or pedals approved for use on public roads, “You basically have to rewrite the whole standard, and that’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of time. Instead of rewriting existing standards for an AV fleet, you could … create new standards.”
Strickland explains further: “As opposed to untying all the regulations to fit AVs into legacy requirements, you could take a blank sheet of paper and create an entirely new class of vehicles. That may be a better approach, but that the NHTSA’s call.” DN