The Fuse

Autonomous Vehicle Exemptions, Explained

by Matt Piotrowski | November 02, 2017

Exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), regulations established in the 1960s for vehicle design, construction, and performance, have been relatively obscure. Companies requesting exemptions have done so in order to test a new technology that does not fit into existing rules. The law provides “a means by which manufacturers of motor vehicles may obtain temporary exemptions from specific safety standards on the grounds of substantial economic hardship, facilitation of the development of new motor vehicle safety or low-emission engine features, or existence of an equivalent overall level of motor vehicle safety.”

There’s a misconception that exemptions are waivers on safety requirements. They are not. In fact, they enhance safety.

Exemptions are not loopholes or giveaways to the auto industry, and they do not compromise safety, as some critics have warned. There’s a misconception that exemptions are waivers on safety requirements. They are not. In fact, they enhance safety. Exemptions—which should be redefined as “modern safety certificates”—are requested to proactively make the case to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for including innovative features in new vehicles. The agency won’t grant them unless the company can prove that the features are as safe as traditional vehicles or safer than current safety standards.

Think tank RAND noted in a recent report that exemptions are rare. “Since 1994, there have been only eight requests on the basis of developing or evaluating new safety features. Generally, NHTSA denied exemptions because the petition failed to show that the new safety feature provided a safety level equal to that of the FMVSS, that the exemption would facilitate testing, or both,” wrote experts at RAND. In ENO Transportation Weekly, Greg Rogers highlights a key point surrounding current safety standards: “It is important to remember that FMVSS are minimum safety standards that manufacturers can—and often do—exceed in the interest of enhancing the safety and comfort of their vehicles.”

Any company requesting an exemption will come under more scrutiny than it would deploying a conventional vehicle.

Against this backdrop, any company requesting an exemption will come under more scrutiny than it would deploying a conventional vehicle. For an exemption to be granted, manufacturers have to provide proof of insurance and data collected during testing, making exempt vehicles the most vetted cars on the roads. Moreover, manufacturers must report to NHTSA if an exempt car is involved in an accident, adding another layer of scrutiny.

FMVSS were written with the assumption that a human would be behind the wheel of the vehicle. With autonomous vehicles, some standards are outdated, making exemptions a necessity. Exemptions are now in the spotlight due to autonomous vehicle laws passed by the House and the Senate. The laws tackle a wide array of important issues for AVs, such as federal preemption and NHTSA rulemaking, but also exemptions. The bills would allow for automakers and tech companies to be granted up 50,000 vehicles (25,000 in the House legislation) that do not meet existing auto safety standards in the first year. The number of exemptions will increase to 100,000 vehicles annually over three years, according to the House bill, and 80,000 in the Senate’s. The current cap on exemptions for new technologies is 2,500 vehicles per manufacturer.

Deploying AVs

Deploying AVs on the road is legal under current FMVSS regulations and does not require an exemption. (There is different set of regulations that only applies to trucks, FMCSR, which require a driver in the vehicle for interstate commerce.) However, if an automaker wants to field AVs whose features do not fit under current regulations, they will need an exemption.

Exemptions allow companies to think outside the traditional vehicle box and produce safer and more fuel efficient and diverse fleets.

This is important as car and tech firms rethink what cars look like and want to deploy enhanced vehicle technology that improves safety. Exemptions allow companies to think outside the traditional vehicle box and produce safer and more fuel efficient and diverse fleets.

Exemptions will be requested for the following two situations:

  • Deploying vehicles without human controls such as steering wheels, brake pedals, and the left turn signal being in the reach of the driver. NHTSA requires that cars on the road today have these features. For fully automated cars, these controls will not be needed. Without the openings provided by exemptions, the auto industry would not be able to move significantly beyond the traditional vehicle, even with automated technology.
  • Developing new designs and configurations that conflict with current laws. The exemption process allows for the necessary flexibility in design and alternative configurations. Automakers could avoid this step by fielding AVs with the same designs of conventional vehicles—but that would stifle innovation and allow regulatory roadblocks to slow the pace of change in the transportation sector.

Without an increase in exemptions, manufacturers would be hamstrung. The increase provided by the laws passed in the House and the Senate give the industry the opportunity to prove to NHTSA that its new technologies are as safe as traditional cars or exceed current regulations. This provides an opening to accelerate the transition to deep penetration of AVs, which will create safer roadways.

Experts say that self-driving cars are likely to reduce traffic fatalities by more than 90 percent, saving approximately 40,000 people lives per year. The exemption process is an important part of reaching an autonomous future with significantly fewer road deaths. Despite the term exemption, the process does not relieve the industry from safety standards. Through the NHTSA application process, companies must prove their vehicles are as safe as existing designs and provide the data to back up those claims.

As Icebreaker Ventures’ Mark Platshon and SAFE’s Robbie Diamond wrote in the San Jose Mercury News: “Expanding exemptions is necessary to unlock the potential of AVs. The upside cannot be ignored: Saving many of the 40,000 lives lost on roadways every year; improving transportation access for the disabled, seniors, disabled veterans and others; and reducing congestion, pollution and our dangerous dependence on oil.”

ADD A COMMENT