NHTSA Takes Another Step Forward in Removing Regulatory Barriers for Automated Driving Systems

26 March 2020 Dashboard Insights Blog
Authors: Christopher H. Grigorian R. Nicholas Englund

On March 17, 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took a major step in modernizing the Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) to accommodate the deployment of vehicles equipped with automated driving systems (ADS) (i.e., systems capable of performing the entire dynamic driving task on a sustained basis or Level 3 through level 5 systems using the SAE taxonomy for driving automation).1 The Agency publicly released a notice of proposed rulemaking amending many of its current crashworthiness/occupant protection-related standards (found in the 200-series of 49 CFR Part 571) to clarify many ambiguities that affect vehicles with automated driving systems without traditional manual controls. The proposed changes seek to remove unnecessary regulatory barriers for ADS-equipped vehicles.  Comments will be due 60 days after the notice is published in the Federal Register. (As of this writing, the notice has not been published; publication has apparently been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Limitations on the Scope of the Proposed Changes

NHTSA notes that this proposal is the Agency’s first proposal with modified regulatory text to accommodate ADS-equipped vehicles without traditional controls and that it plans to issue future notices with similar goals. Accordingly, the notice’s scope is based on several assumptions. First, NHTSA assumes that, at least initially, ADS-equipped vehicles will have seating configurations similar to non-ADS vehicles (i.e., forward facing). Accordingly, this noticed does not address the potential safety consequences posed by nontraditional seating arrangements. Second, NHTSA does not address whether trucks without a designated seating position (occupant-less vehicles) should have frontal designs that take into account protections for occupants of other vehicles in the event of a potential collision. Further, NHTSA is not proposing a thorough analysis of all telltales and warnings and has limited its proposal to the telltale related to air bag suppression.

Changes to Definitions

NHTSA proposes changes to many key terms in 49 CFR Part 571 to help clarify the application of portions of the FMVSSs to ADS-equipped vehicles, while maintaining current performance requirements applicable to traditional vehicles.

Performance Requirements for Vehicles without a Steering Wheel or Steering Column

Current requirements address concerns that arise from a driver impacting the steering wheel or steering column as well as other crash dynamics that are affected by the presence of the steering wheel and column (for example air bag deployments). NHTSA proposes several textual changes that should create a pathway for manufacturers to certify vehicles without a steering wheel.

Performance Requirements for Vehicles Without a Driver’s Seat and Treatment of Air Bag Requirements

Just as the current requirements presume that vehicles will have a steering wheel, they also presume that vehicles have human drivers. Under current air bag requirements in FMVSS 208, performance requirements differ between the driver seat and the front passenger seat. In order to maintain the current requirements as much as possible, NHTSA proposes applying the air bag performance requirements for the right side (current passenger) to the left side (current driver side) in vehicles without a human driver.

Looking through these proposed changes, they largely fall into the categories of clarifying the application sections in specific standards, changing terms to avoid references to the driver’s seat, and prohibiting dual-mode vehicles from operating when an infant is placed in the driver’s position. For example, NHTSA proposes amending FMVSS 208 to clarify that the standard will only apply to trucks with designated seating positions and that the requirements that currently apply to the right passenger seat will apply to both front-outboard seating position in ADS-equipped vehicles without manual controls. Other examples include, changing the term “driver” to “front left outboard” in the regulatory text to determine whether the test applies to ADS-equipped vehicles without a human driver.

Unaffected Standards

NHTSA has tentatively determined that no changes are needed for the following 200-series safety standards:

  • FMVSS 202a, Head restraints; Mandatory applicability begins on September 1, 2009.
  • FMVSS 209, Seat belt assemblies.
  • FMVSS 210, Seat belt assembly anchorages.
  • FMVSS 212, Windshield mounting.
  • FMVSS 213, Child restraint systems.
  • FMVSS 217, Bus emergency exits and window retention and release.
  • FMVSS 218, Motorcycle helmets.
  • FMVSS 219, Windshield zone intrusion.
  • FMVSS 220, School bus rollover protection.
  • FMVSS 221, School bus body joint strength.
  • FMVSS 222, School bus passenger seating and crash protection.

Stakeholder Comments

These changes mark a significant step forward in permitting the deployment of ADS-equipped vehicles. Manufacturers developing ADS-equipped vehicles or systems/components are encouraged to carefully review the notice and consider submitting comments on the Agency’s proposed amendments. The 60-day comment period will commence when the notice is published in the Federal Register.


1 For reference see “SAE International J3016_201806 Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Driving Automation Systems for On-Road Motor Vehicles. Available here: https://www.sae.org/standards/content/j3016_201806/.

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