Until this week, the federal government’s car safety regulations were based on two assumptions that probably seemed self-evident when they were written: that every car will have people inside, and that 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 have seatbelts and airbags. It also sets minimum standards for everything from windshield strength to crash test performance.
In the coming years, these assumptions will be increasingly out of date. So on Thursday, as the Trump administration is coming to a close, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a new version of the FMVSS that recognizes that some cars don’t have drivers—and some vehicles don’t have anyone inside at all.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of these new rules will be Nuro, a startup that is building delivery robots designed to operate on streets rather than sidewalks. In a statement to Ars, Nuro hailed the rules as a “significant advancement that will help Nuro commercialize our self-driving delivery vehicles.”
A number of FMVSS rules are designed to protect the occupants of a vehicle—for example, rules requiring airbags and seatbelts. Nuro points out that these requirements are worse than useless for a delivery vehicle with no passengers. In a crash, added weight from unnecessary equipment raises the chances of injuries 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 rule, NHTSA offered this exemption to anyone building a vehicle designed for zero passengers. NHTSA waived requirements for seat belts and airbags as well as rules about the design of door locks and seats themselves. It also exempts these vehicles from meeting crash worthiness standards, since the vehicles will only have pizza or groceries inside—not human beings.
No more “driver’s seat”
Even when a vehicle is designed to carry people, it won’t necessarily have a driver. Some self-driving vehicles will be “dual mode” vehicles, where a driver has the option to take over and drive with conventional controls. But others might not have a steering wheel or pedals at all. And that would have conflicted with the old rules, which assumed that every car would have a driver in the front-left seating position.
The new rules clean up a lot of terminology. Instead of referring to the “driver’s side” and “passenger’s side” of the car, the new rules just refer to the left and right sides. If the vehicle doesn’t have a driver’s seat, then the rules for the front right seat (the “passenger seat”) also apply to the front left seat.
If a car has both manual and self-driving capabilities, it must be capable of detecting when there is a child in the driver’s seat and disable the self-driving features.
The new rules also recognize that the design of vehicle controls may be changing over time. The phrase “steering wheel” was used in many spots in the old rule. NHTSA did a find-and-replace in favor of “steering control,” which makes it clear that a steering wheel doesn’t need to be circular.
At the same time, NHTSA rejected a request from Tesla to make rules about alternative methods of controlling a vehicle. In a regulatory filing last year, the electric carmaker predicted that automakers might develop “new concepts that rely on buttons, joysticks, screens, etc.” In the future, a car might not have a single driver. Instead, multiple passengers might have the ability to control a vehicle from different seating positions. So Tesla urged NHTSA to dispense with the concept of a driver’s seat altogether. NHTSA rejected that approach.
“The new definition is meant to encompass traditional driving controls, not future controls that have not yet been developed,” the agency wrote in response. “This rulemaking does not address joystick-type designs that are intended to be the only manual driving control, or driving controls that have no fixed position at a particular seating location.”
Auto safety group wants NHTSA to do more
NHTSA has taken an important step to streamlining the development of self-driving vehicles. But even more important is what the agency chose not to do this week: it didn’t create any significant new regulations on the testing or deployment of self-driving technology.
Self-driving vehicles are almost completely unregulated under federal law. As long as a company starts with an FMVSS-compliant vehicle, federal law gives it free rein to convert it into a self-driving car and test it on public roads. NHTSA has exercised hardly any formal oversight over these testing efforts.
For example, companies testing self-driving cars in California must submit annual reports to state regulators detailing the number of miles they’ve driven and the types of crashes that have occurred. Federal regulators have imposed no such requirement.
Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) also have no real federal oversight. Federal law doesn’t impose minimum performance standards for these systems, doesn’t mandate standardized interfaces for them, and doesn’t require the use of driver monitoring systems to make sure drivers adequately monitor them while they are active.
So the Trump administration’s focus on revising outdated regulations rather than fashioning new ones has drawn the ire of some auto safety advocates. In a Thursday email, the Advocates for Highway Safety blasted NHTSA’s “failure to advance commonsense rules detailing minimum performance standards for autonomous driving systems.”
The group called on NHTSA to mandate the adoption of active safety features like automatic emergency braking and lane departure warnings in new cars. Obviously, the Trump administration doesn’t have any more time to work on this problem. But an important question for the incoming Biden team will be whether to continue the hands-off approach of Trump’s NHTSA or whether to regulate the technology more aggressively.