06 April 2020

NHTSA Proposes Updates to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to Account for Autonomous Vehicles

On March 30, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on updates to federal motor vehicle safety standards for vehicles equipped with Automated Driving Systems (ADS). As always, compliance with these standards is a prerequisite to selling vehicles into interstate commerce. The action seeks to update select standards to account for ADS vehicles that lack traditional manual controls necessary for human drivers but otherwise have traditional seating configurations (i.e., a passenger sitting in the driver’s seating position). Because NHTSA developed these standards long before vehicles equipped with ADS technology were ever contemplated, the current regulatory structure inhibits development of this new technology.

NHTSA’s underlying goal in this rulemaking is to remove unnecessary regulatory barriers to introducing ADS innovation with lifesaving potential and provide regulatory certainty to ADS vehicle manufacturers while ensuring that vehicle occupants receive the same protection afforded to them by existing regulations. To better integrate ADS-equipped vehicles into NHTSA’s regulatory structure, the agency is proposing high-level changes applicable to a number of 200 Series crashworthiness and occupant-protection standards as follows:

  • modification of key definitions throughout 49 CFR Part 571
  • clarification of certain-occupant protection standards for vehicle designed to carry objects, not occupants
  • explanation of protections required when there is not a steering wheel, steering column or driver’s seat in motor vehicles having multiple outboard passenger seats
  • requirements for advanced air bag systems in light of child occupants sitting in what is now considered the driver’s seat

Ultimately, NHTSA is seeking to ensure that industry and the public have a clear idea of how these occupant-protection and crashworthiness standards apply to ADS-equipped vehicles. Similar regulations for 100 Series crash avoidance standards were proposed in May 2019, and additional regulations for vehicles without occupants sitting in the driver’s seating position are forthcoming. NHTSA is seeking comment on the proposed changes to the 200 Series standards through May 29, 2020.