Statement from NHTSA Public Meeting on Federal Automated Vehicles Policy

  • November 10, 2016
150 150 Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety



NOVEMBER 10, 2016

Good afternoon. I am Peter Kurdock, Director of Regulatory Affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates).

Advocates has always enthusiastically championed technology and for good reason.  It is one of the most effective strategies for reducing deaths and injuries.  NHTSA has estimated that since 1960 more than 600,000 lives have been saved by motor vehicle safety technologies.

In 1991, Advocates led the coalition that succeeded in putting the airbag mandate in the ISTEA bill. As a result, by 1997, every new card sold in the United States was equipped with a front seat airbag and the lives saved have been significant.  Advocates continued to build on our success by pushing lifesaving technologies in other bills and regulatory proposals.  These efforts included electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, rear view cameras and other important safety improvements to trucks and motorcoaches.

According to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 35,092 people were killed on our nation’s roads in 2015.  This represents a 7.2-percent increase from 2014 and is the largest percentage increase in nearly fifty years. Injuries resulting from crashes also increased to 2.44 million from 2.34 million in 2014.

Advocates is hopeful that automated vehicle technology has the potential to significantly reduce this carnage.  However, NHTSA must not place exclusive focus during the next 10 years on the development of “driverless” cars to the detriment of other safety advances that have already been shown to improve safety.  In fact, the agency is currently in breach of several mandated deadlines set by Congress in the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, to issue regulations requiring rear seatbelt reminders, updating LATCH systems for child occupants and to improve occupant protection in motorcoaches.  The agency also continues to merely issue guidelines rather than regulations to govern in-vehicle and nomadic electronic devices that contribute to distracted driving, an issue that has long been identified by the safety community and the Department of Transportation (DOT) as a major public health epidemic.

Mere voluntary guidelines that can be ignored by the industry are completely inadequate to ensure that American families are not put at unreasonable risk during the testing and deployment of this technology.  Automated vehicle technology must be subject to an effective regulatory framework that provides a level playing field for developers and manufacturers and guarantees public safety.  The agency must establish through a public rulemaking, regulations to ensure that manufacturers are using due diligence in testing systems operation and performance and that all driverless car manufacturers are playing by the same set of rules.  While NHTSA’s recently issued voluntary guidelines is a step forward, the guidance is inadequate because it is not legally binding, not enforceable and not sufficient to guarantee public safety.

The safety assessment letter perfectly illustrates the shortcomings of voluntary guidelines.  No matter how comprehensive the structure of the letter may be in attempting to obtain the information the agency seeks, manufacturers can simply choose to ignore the letter or to provide partial and incomplete responses.  And, NHTSA will have no recourse regardless of the agency’s safety concerns.

The proposed structure of the safety assessment letter is also deeply flawed.  Advocates supports taking a functional safety approach to the examination and analysis of AV systems.  The general premise of functional safety, that the manufacturer must show that the system operates properly and safely within its design parameters, should be applied across a number of the topics identified in the letter.  This critical approach to safety should be used as a framework for specifying information from throughout the lifecycle of the automated vehicle operating system, from testing to deployment that NHTSA should receive.  For example, regarding cybersecurity, manufacturers should be required to identify which hazard identification methods were used, what the results of that process were, what risks were identified (if any), what the assessments were of those risks, what analyses and testing were conducted to ensure the risks were eliminated, substituted, or mitigated, what processes were used to verify that the design performed to specification and, finally, what methods of monitoring the field performance of the system will be undertaken to ensure that the field performance matches the design performance.  Yet, none of these critical points are outlined in the proposed letter.

In terms of content, the letter is lacking in specificity and uniformity which will result in a critical failure to gather the information most beneficial to the public and regulators alike.  For example, for the topic “System Safety” the agency should provide a list of “guidance, best practices, design principles, and standards” which the agency has identified as relevant and should require specific responses for each topic.  In almost every area the requirements are so general or vague as to permit each manufacturer to provide completely unique responses which would impede the agency’s ability to comprehend, let alone compare, the myriad of responses in the letters.  Of course there should always be room for manufacturers to provide information beyond the information specified by the agency.  However, specifying specific points that must be addressed, and standardizing the basic response, would allow for better analysis of industry practices to support future rulemaking and empower the public to compare the performance of different manufacturers.

Advocates strongly believes that the development and deployment of automated vehicles as well as the agency’s role is regulating this technology must be open and transparent. Therefore, all communications and responses between NHTSA and a manufacturer as it relates to the safety assessment letters and any other issue involving automated vehicles must be made publicly available and subject to public review.  Over the last few years, automakers have hidden from regulators and the American public safety defects that have led to countless and unnecessary deaths and injuries as well as the recall of millions of vehicles.  This troubling and tragic lack of transparency should not be allowed to infect the development of driverless vehicles.  Lack of transparency will severely undermine the public’s confidence in this new technology, and inhibit its adoption by the public, no matter its perceived benefits.  In fact, a recent public poll conducted for Kelly Blue Book revealed that a majority of Americans prefer to have full control of their vehicle and more than a third of those interviewed believe that our roads will be safer if vehicles are operated by people.  Moreover, one in three individuals reported that they will never purchase a fully automated vehicle.  This survey clearly shows that the public is wary of this technology especially if there are questions as to its reliability.

The proposed guidelines provided little information on the “agency response process” to the safety assessment letters.  NHTSA has only indicated that the agency “might request more detailed information on Guidance areas to better assess safety aspects of HAV [highly automated vehicle systems].”  Advocates finds this lack of specificity as to what actions the agency will take to obtain complete information from a manufacturer, or to follow up on the information submitted, disturbing especially in light of the fact that these letters are voluntary and allow a manufacturer to provide as little information as it chooses, which would seriously compromise the usefulness of the entire process.

Similarly, the time frame for responses to the letters the agency is proposing is also of concern.  The proposed voluntary guidelines indicate that for manufacturers’ and other entities’ HAV systems already being tested and deployed, NHTSA expects a response within 4 months after the agency process is finalized.  Such a significant amount of time to formulate a response for products which have already been developed and deployed and for which all of the documentation should readily be available is unnecessary.  In addition, for manufacturers with HAV systems coming out at a later time, the agency proposes that the letters should be submitted 4 months before active public road testing begins.  The timing for submission of the safety assessment letters should permit adequate time for analysis and review of the letter so that NTHSA and/or state officials can prevent dangerous vehicles from being deployed on public roads for testing or any other use.

In sum, Advocates believes automated technology holds great promise to advance safety for everyone.  However, federal safety oversight and minimum performance standards established through a public notice and comment rulemaking will play an essential role in achieving this brave new world of computer driven motor vehicles.  Fifty years ago this year, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 because of concerns about the death and injury toll on our highways.  The law required the federal government to establish federal motor vehicle safety standards to protect the public against “unreasonable risk of accidents occurring as a result of the design, construction or performance of motor vehicles.”  While cars have changed dramatically and will continue to do so in the future, the underlying premise of this prescient law has not.  Public safety must be the agency’s highest priority.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments today.