Enlarge /. Nuro makes small electric vehicles for moving cargo. They are approved for the road but do not offer space for passengers.
Up until this week, the federal government's auto safety regulations were based on two assumptions that were likely taken for granted when they were created: that there are people in every car and one of those people will be the driver. To protect the safety of the driver and possible passengers, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) requires that every car be equipped with seat belts and airbags. It also sets minimum standards for everything from windshield strength to crash test performance.
In the years to come, these assumptions will become increasingly out of date. On Thursday, as the Trump administration comes to an end, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a new version of the FMVSS recognizing that some cars have no drivers – and some vehicles have no one inside at all.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of these new rules will be Nuro, a startup that builds delivery robots that are designed to operate on streets rather than sidewalks. In a statement to Ars, Nuro hailed the rules as "a major step forward that will help Nuro commercialize our self-driving delivery vehicles."
A number of FMVSS rules are designed to protect the occupants of a vehicle, such as rules that require airbags and seat belts. Nuro points out that for a delivery vehicle with no passengers, these requirements are worse than useless. In the event of an accident, additional weight due to unnecessary equipment increases the risk of injury to people outside the vehicle.
Last year Nuro asked NHTSA for special exemptions from some of these rules – including allowing Nuro's robots not to have windshields. In its new regulation, NHTSA offered this exemption to anyone building a zero-passenger vehicle. NHTSA waived requirements for seat belts and airbags as well as rules for the design of door locks and seats. It also exempts these vehicles from meeting the crash standards as the vehicles only contain pizza or groceries – no people.
No more "driver's seat"
Enlarge /. Cruise, a self-driving startup primarily owned by GM and Honda, has developed the Cruise Origin, a prototype of a self-driving vehicle without traditional steering controls.
Even if a vehicle is designed to carry people, it does not necessarily have to have a driver. Some self-driving vehicles are "dual mode" vehicles that allow a driver to take over and drive with conventional controls. But others may not have a steering wheel or pedals at all. And that would have been in conflict with the old rules that every car would have a driver in the front left seat position.
The new rules clean up many terms. Instead of referring to the "driver's side" and "passenger side" of the car, the new rules only refer to the left and right sides. If the vehicle does not have a driver's seat, the rules for the front right seat (the "passenger seat") also apply to the front left seat.
If a car is both manual and self-driving, it needs to know when a child is in the driver's seat and disable the self-driving features.
The new rules also recognize that the design of vehicle controls can change over time. The term "steering wheel" was used in many places in the old rule. NHTSA did a search and replace in favor of "steering control" which makes it clear that a steering wheel need not be circular.
At the same time, NHTSA declined a request from Tesla to set rules for alternative methods of controlling a vehicle. In an approval application last year, the electric automaker predicted that automakers "could develop new concepts based on buttons, joysticks, screens, etc." In the future, a car may not have a single driver. Instead, several passengers can control a vehicle from different seating positions. Tesla therefore asked NHTSA to abandon the concept of a driver's seat altogether. NHTSA rejected this approach.
"The new definition is intended to include traditional drive controls, not future controls that have not yet been developed," the agency wrote in response. "This rule creation does not affect joystick constructions, which are intended as the only manual drive control, or drive controls that do not have a fixed position at a certain seat."
The Auto Safety Group wants NHTSA to do more
beat and killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/tempe_crash-640×359.png "width =" 640 "height =" 359 "srcset = "https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/tempe_crash-1280×717.png 2x”/>Enlarge /. An Uber self-driving prototype hit and killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona in 2018.
NHTSA has taken an important step in streamlining the development of self-driving vehicles. More importantly, however, what the agency didn't do this week: it didn't put in place significant new regulations on testing or using self-driving technology.
Self-driving vehicles are almost unregulated according to federal law. As long as a company starts with an FMVSS-compliant vehicle, federal law allows it to be freely converted into a self-driving car and tested on public roads. NHTSA has had little formal control over these testing efforts.
For example, companies testing self-driving cars in California are required to submit annual reports to state regulators detailing the number of miles driven and the types of accidents that have occurred. Federal regulators have not imposed such a requirement.
Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) also have no real federal supervision. Federal law does not prescribe minimum performance standards for these systems, prescribe standardized interfaces for them, or require the use of driver monitoring systems to ensure that drivers adequately monitor them while they are active.
The Trump administration's focus on revising obsolete regulations rather than creating new ones has drawn the ire of some auto safety advocates. In an email on Thursday, road safety attorneys blew up "the NHTSA's failure to promote common sense rules that set minimum performance standards for autonomous driving systems."
The group asked the NHTSA to commission the introduction of active safety features such as automatic emergency braking and lane departure warnings in new vehicles. Obviously, the Trump administration has run out of time to work on this issue. However, a key question for the new Biden team will be whether to continue the hands-off approach of Trump's NHTSA or to regulate the technology more aggressively.