The White House and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced guidelines for autonomous vehicle manufacturers this week that seek to encourage car makers to set voluntary standards while prioritizing safety and security. While prioritizing safety, the plan—Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies 4.0 (pdf), also known as AV 4.0, is designed to promote U.S. leadership and innovation in the field by ensuring a consistent regulatory approach.
“AV 4.0 will ensure American leadership in AV technology development and integration by providing unified guidance for the first time across the Federal government for innovators and stakeholders,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, at the CES innovation fair in Las Vegas.
According to the USDOT, AV 4.0 establishes federal principles for the development and integration of automated vehicles via three core focus areas: to prioritize safety and security, to promote innovation, and to ensure a consistent regulatory approach. It also outlines ongoing Administration efforts supporting AV technology growth and leadership, as well as opportunities for collaboration including federal investments in the AV sector and resources for innovators, researchers, and the public.
“AV 4.0 brings all of the important work happening on automated vehicle technologies across the federal government under one unified approach. The federal principles released today help foster an environment for innovators to advance safe AV technologies, and put the U.S. in a position of continued leadership in the future of transportation,” said U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Michael Kratsios.
In her keynote speech, Chao said that “Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives annually and improve quality of life through reduction of traffic congestion, increased productivity and environmental benefits.” Chao also maintained that AVs could improve mobility for both the elderly and persons with disabilities.
“The takeaway from AV 4.0 is that the federal government is all-in for safer, better, and more inclusive transportation aided by automated driving systems,” she said.
Since his inauguration, President Trump has pursued a consistent policy of deregulation. According to the White House, “Under the President’s leadership, the Administration has cut 8 and a half regulations for every new rule, far exceeding his promise to cut two regulations for every new one.” The White House says these deregulatory efforts will help save American households as much as $3,100 per year.
The USDOT has held back on extensive regulations for the AV industry. Chao said that the AV 4.0 guideline “recognizes the value of private-sector leadership in AV research, development, and integration.” However, Chao also stated that “This kind of innovation requires appropriate government oversight to ensure safety, open markets, allocation of public resources and, of course, protection of the public interest.”
Exactly what form of government oversight remains undefined for AV4.0 technology, though the guideline does hint at improving cooperation across branches of government and jurisdictions.
#CES2020 officially kicked off this morning! We’re glad to be back at the show for the second year in a row. We are operating our #AutonomousVehicles on the public streets of Las Vegas this week! pic.twitter.com/lHXjzHXlLm
— Yandex (@yandexcom) January 7, 2020
Safety in the Testing Phase
Some bodies view federal (and state) regulation as an essential component of government oversight, and especially in the current phase where AV technologies are being tested and have yet to reach levels of maturity and safety that would make them suitable for widespread market introduction.
Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) gave testimony before a U.S. Senate committee on highly automated vehicles in November. When speaking of Advanced Driving Systems (ADS), Sumwalt said he sees “enormous potential in the ability of ADS to mitigate or prevent crashes on our roadways. A promise of the upcoming ADSs is that such systems will be safer than a human driver. Until that promise is realized, the testing of developmental ADS—with all its expected failures and limitations—requires appropriate safeguards when conducted on public roads. Unfortunately, there has been an absence of safety regulations and federal guidance regarding how to adequately evaluate an ADS, which has prompted some states to develop their own requirements for AV testing.”
The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation—highway, rail, marine, and pipeline. It was thus called on to investigate the tragic death of a pedestrian killed by an Uber Technologies testing vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018. Among several others, one factor that contributed to the incident, the NTSB found, was “the Arizona Department of Transportation’s insufficient oversight of AV testing.”
According to the NTSB, the test vehicle involved in the Tempe incident “was a Volvo XC90 that Uber ATG had modified with a proprietary developmental automated driving system. It was not a self-driving car. We are not there yet. The crash vehicle could drive on pre-mapped routes with an attentive human operator. But as has been widely reported, the vehicle’s operator was not paying attention at the time of the crash.”
Difficulties in Human-Automation System Interaction
While fully autonomous vehicles are currently being tested, most autonomous vehicle systems currently available require a human operator. According to the NTSB, however, “Humans are not wired to monitor highly reliable, highly automated systems for extended periods of time.”
In an accident report (pdf) related to automation of airplane flight systems, the NTSB refers to a scientific article from 2010, which states that “Human factors research has demonstrated that system operators often become complacent about monitoring highly reliable automated systems when they develop a high degree of trust in those systems and when manual tasks compete with automated tasks for operator attention.”
However, while safety is a chief concern surrounding AVs as they are developed and tested, safety is also among their primary benefits.
According to Staff Sergeant Terence McDonnell of New York’s State Police, “The vast majority of traffic crashes today are caused by human error. So by greatly reducing or eliminating these errors, theoretically, the number of crashes and the number of resultant injuries and fatalities should greatly decline.”
According to Chao, “Safety must always be number one, and it is at the U.S. Department of Transportation.”