The Fuse

When is a steering wheel not just a steering wheel?

by Amitai Bin-Nun and Kristen Hernandez | May 22, 2019

On Monday, May 20th, SAFE urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to strongly consider petitions from GM Cruise and Nuro to allow autonomous vehicles (AVs) on the road with “exemptions” from the requirement to include some conventional features such as a steering wheel that are not relevant to fully autonomous vehicles. We have done this because sometimes a steering wheel is not just a steering wheel, but also symbolic of barriers to a more efficient transportation system.

The federal government currently has no specific regulations that require a certain level of performance from AVs. This means that if you buy a vehicle from a dealer and put on equipment to make it autonomous, it is legal in the eyes of the federal government and can be used in commercial service (it’s not totally the Wild West – NHTSA can, and has threatened to, recall AVs that threaten public safety). However, if you take the next logical step and design an AV with no steering wheel or brake pedals, or even without a screen to show the driver the view from the rear-facing camera, you would run afoul of rules, sometimes decades old, that define precisely where steering wheel and brake pedals should be. Companies wishing to design an AV from the ground up without these features – instead of just retrofitting existing car designs – must apply for an exemption from NHTSA.

Why is it important to allow developers the ability to design AVs from the ground up? First, there are real benefits that can be unlocked with custom designs. Take the Nuro R2X (pictured below), which is the subject of one of the petitions. It is not just “driverless”, but “passengerless” as well since it only moves goods around (for delivery), not people. When the average weight of a US car exceeds 4,000 pounds, the R2X weighs under 2,500 pounds. It can do this because there are no airbags, seatbelts, steering wheels, or brake pedals. The EPA has calculated that every 100 pounds taken out of the vehicle improves its fuel economy by 1 percent, so there is potential for very significant fuel savings. Exemptions could also pave the way for more accessible vehicles, improving the usability of our transportation system.

Credit: Nuro

The exemption process is a test of whether the federal government is able to accommodate the latest technological advances from industry.

Additionally, SAFE has long held that public acceptance of AVs requires confidence in the effectiveness and engagement of regulatory authority. The exemption process is a test of whether the federal government is able to accommodate the latest technological advances from industry. The U.S. Department of Transportation is in the midst of a long process to update existing regulations to better accommodate new AV designs and, eventually, to regulate the performance of these self-driving systems. In the interim, NHTSA has a few tools to create a lane for innovation, and exemptions are one of the most important ways to do so.

While NHTSA continues to refine and develop its regulatory philosophy on AVs, it is important that the exemption process continues to be viable–one that developers can productively engage in to allow for new vehicle designs. SAFE has urged the Administration to either approve this petition or clearly outline what would be required for a successful petition. This is the minimum that would be required for exemptions to be an important and helpful regulatory tool for both safety and innovation. This is especially critical as Congress considers a renewed push to pass AV legislation.

The exemption process is critical to allow for continued innovation in our transportation system and for continuing the dialogue between industry, government, and external stakeholders.

Some have argued that exempted vehicles wouldn’t be safe, but this is a misunderstanding of how the law is applied in the FMVSS exemption process. In its filing, SAFE has urged NHTSA to enforce the law on exemptions, arguing that they should be granted if the petitioners demonstrate that their respective requests for an exemption do not pose an unreasonable risk to safety and are also in the public interest. SAFE has urged NHTSA to request sufficient documentation from petitioners to demonstrate that the absence of say, a steering wheel or a screen to display camera views, does not negatively impact the safety of the public. We additionally ask NHTSA to continue to use the legal tools at its disposal to ensure that all AVs on public roads are safe – whether or not they are the recipients of an exemption. Finally, we also urge petitioners, and industry in general, to be as transparent and detailed as possible in the safety case for AVs.

The exemption process is critical to allow for continued innovation in our transportation system and for continuing the dialogue between industry, government, and external stakeholders. We hope that NHTSA will engage with the current petitions and use this valuable tool to improve the safety, energy efficiency, and accessibility of our transportation system.

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