The Trump Administration recently took some major steps toward providing a regulatory framework that encourages the safe development, testing, and deployment of autonomous vehicles. Several weeks ago, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao released Automated Driving Systems 2.0 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a document aimed at supporting automotive industry innovators in the safe introduction of new autonomous technologies. This document includes a Voluntary Guidance for stakeholders as they consider and design best practices for testing and deploying autonomous vehicles.

Photo courtesy of Steve Jurveston via the Creative Commons Licence

For help understanding the Voluntary Guidance, we’ve turned to our friend, George Soodoo, who runs a regulatory consulting practice that focuses on vehicle crash avoidance technologies. George is a mechanical engineer and MBA who spent 30 years at NHTSA, ultimately as chief of its Vehicle Dynamics Division.

Here’s our interview with George:

Q: As an initial question, what is an NHTSA “guidance” and what kind of controlling effect does it have on industry, if any?

SOODOO: An NHTSA guidance is a non-regulatory approach to addressing a motor vehicle safety need and which provides a framework that vehicle manufacturers and equipment suppliers may use to design their products. A guidance is entirely voluntary. It does not establish a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) and, therefore, has no compliance requirement or enforcement mechanism.

A guidance has an indirect controlling effect on industry because the elements of the guidance may be used to develop a proposal for a notice of proposed rulemaking. Therefore, manufacturers that adhere to the guidance could be in a better position than their competitors to offer compliant systems to their customers at an earlier date.

Q: What are the major elements of Automated Driving Systems 2.0?

SOODOO: The Automated Driving Systems (ADS) 2.0 is composed of two sections and focuses on vehicles that incorporate high levels of automation, specifically Levels 3, 4, and 5 – Conditional, High, and Full Automation, respectively.

Section 1, Voluntary Guidance for Automated Driving Systems, contains 12 safety design elements considered the most important design aspects for the development, testing, and deployment of autonomous vehicles. These 12 elements include: system safety, human machine interface, vehicle cybersecurity, validation methods, and consumer education and training, among others. For example, the guidance suggests that manufacturers may use a combination of vehicle simulation, test track, and on-road testing to demonstrate the expected performance of an ADS. These tests should demonstrate the performance of the ADS during normal operation, during crash avoidance maneuvers, and during system malfunction or in driving conditions outside of the system’s capabilities.

Section 2, Technical Assistance to States, Best Practices for Legislatures Regarding Automated Driving Systems, clarifies the federal and state roles in regulating autonomous vehicles. NHTSA remains responsible for regulating the safety-related design and performance aspects of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. However, states continue to be responsible for regulating the human driver and vehicle operations. Section 2 also lays out the framework states can use as their legislatures write laws on the use and operation of autonomous vehicles, to ensure a consistent national framework.

Q: How helpful do you view the Automated Driving Systems 2.0 guidance in terms of speeding up the development of autonomous vehicles?

SOODOO: I consider the ADS 2.0 to be very helpful for vehicles that incorporate Automation Levels 3 through 5. It allows manufacturers to devote more time to testing, validation, and deployment of autonomous vehicles instead of compliance and enforcement issues. ADS 2.0 shifts the focus from a regulatory approach and places more emphasis on seeking non-regulatory solutions. It also gives manufacturers the leeway to develop creative solutions, which may be difficult to do under a more rigid regulatory framework.

In the near term, it also benefits NHTSA by giving the agency the opportunity to work cooperatively with industry to achieve the safety goals for autonomous vehicles. Such cooperation is difficult to do when rulemaking proceedings begin. Generally, at this stage in the development of a new technology, it is challenging for NHTSA to quantify the potential safety benefits associated with deploying the technology. This task becomes easier as the technology becomes commercially available and vehicles are placed in service throughout the country. NHTSA will then be able to assess the on-road performance of these systems and fully understand how they impact vehicle crashes.

Ultimately, I believe that there will be a need for rulemaking to establish some minimum performance requirements for ADS with compliance tests and enforcement mechanisms in place, as is the case for safety systems on conventional vehicles.

Q: NHTSA’s mission is to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce the economic costs associated with motor vehicle crashes. Can you explain how the agency’s rulemaking process works to develop and publish vehicle safety regulations that help accomplish the agency’s mission?

SOODOO: NHTSA initiates rulemaking action to address a specific safety problem by one of several means: Congressional mandate; petition for rulemaking from industry or the public; or the agency’s own initiative. Internally, NHTSA begins the process by quantifying a motor vehicle safety problem in terms of fatalities, injuries, and property damage caused by crashes. This is done by analyzing police-reported fatal and non-fatal crashes in the agency’s crash databases. NHTSA then conducts research using systems designed to correct the safety problem, which focuses on evaluating the performance of the system and determining the most appropriate performance metrics and pass/fail criteria that would achieve the desired safety benefits. The agency also develops a benefits-cost analysis to determine whether the safety benefits achieved by the new requirement outweigh the cost to consumers of equipping new vehicles with the safety system.

This internal work is synthesized into an NPRM, which is published to give the public an opportunity to comment.

Q: What areas do you believe would pose significant challenges for NHTSA as it tries to be responsive to the rapid technological changes needed to open the U.S. market to Level 5 fully autonomous vehicles?

SOODOO: NHTSA faces several significant challenges to being responsive to industry, such as:

1) The length of its rulemaking process. The rulemaking process for significant amendments to a motor vehicle safety standard is time-consuming, and also tends to be adversarial and contentious. On average, it takes about five years to complete rulemaking on an issue of medium complexity. For significant rules on autonomous vehicles, the agency will have to seek ways to speed-up the rulemaking process so that the technology on which the amendments are based would not be eclipsed by another emerging technology by the time the rulemaking is completed. The other challenge here is to identify and keep the focus on the desired performance level for safety so that the mandated safety requirements are based on performance standards versus equipment standards.

2) Temporary exemptions. Current regulations allow each manufacturer to apply for a temporary exemption from compliance with one or more Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which are limited to 2,500 vehicles annually and for a period not exceeding three years. The challenge for NHTSA would be to find a balance between allowing temporary exemptions for autonomous vehicle systems to help speed up their development and deployment and ensuring that the American public is protected from unreasonable risks associated with the emerging technologies on fully autonomous vehicles. Congress is considering autonomous vehicle legislation that would give NHTSA the authority to increase the number of exempted vehicles per manufacturer to 100,000 per year, thus possibly creating a bigger challenge for the agency in managing those temporary exemptions.

3) Consumer education. Educating the public about the use of autonomous vehicles will be a continuing challenge for NHTSA as manufacturers offer the public autonomous vehicles that would require a different type of consumer engagement. Given the different approaches being used by manufacturers as they prepare to deploy autonomous vehicles, getting the right amount of information to consumers, and helping them to understand the technology without overwhelming them, will be a significant task for the agency and the industry.

Q: What are some examples of vehicle safety systems that would need new or revised safety standards?

SOODOO: One example is the current federal braking standards, which require a human driver to apply the brake pedal, accelerator, and steering controls to conduct the braking test. Amendments would focus on developing compliance tests that can be conducted without a human driver and without foot or hand controls.

Another example is the current federal standard for controls and displays, which specifies performance requirements for the location, identification, color, and illumination of motor vehicle controls, telltales, and indicators. These requirements were developed for use by a human driver at the controls of a vehicle but become irrelevant for a fully autonomous vehicle.

New safety standards would likely be needed for automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems and also for the performance of cameras and radars, which provide the control for autonomous vehicles.

Blogmeister’s note: This interview was conducted via email and edited for brevity. Laura can be reached at stefani@fhhlaw.com and George Soodoo can be reached at gSOODOO@yahoo.com.

About George Soodoo:
George Soodoo is a Private Consultant with expertise in motor vehicle crash avoidance technologies and the Federal regulatory process. He worked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 30 years and was the Chief of the Vehicle Dynamics Division. Mr. Soodoo has successfully managed many challenging rulemaking projects on light-vehicle and heavy-vehicle crash avoidance systems, including tires, tire pressure monitoring systems, antilock braking systems, vehicle stability control systems, and advanced emergency braking technologies, among others. He was the U.S Delegate to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Working Party on Brakes and Running Gear (GRRF) in Geneva, Switzerland, and helped develop the global technical regulation (GTR) on motorcycle brake systems, which was adopted as a U.S. Federal motor vehicle safety standard in 2012. Mr. Soodoo was also on the DOT Team that developed the Report to Congress on increasing the Federal size and weight limits for heavy trucks.

Mr. Soodoo started his career at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan as a Design and Development Engineer. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.B.A. in Economics and Finance.