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Breaking news – Feds give green light for driverless car technology

September 21, 2016 by Steven M. Gursten

U.S. DOT’s “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy” shows a commitment to self-driving technology that has ‘potential to save thousands of lives’ from automobile accidents; 15-point safety assessment for manufacturers of ‘highly automated vehicles’ (HAVs)

Photo by smoothgroover22 / CC BY

It’s now official: The Federal Government is 100% behind the development and deployment of driverless cars, which have the potential to prevent thousands of car accidents and save tens of thousands of lives every year.

With the release of its “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” the U.S. Department of Transportation importantly signals its unwavering commitment to “highly automated vehicles” (HAVs) and self-driving vehicle technology which are expected to:

“[A]ddress and mitigate that overwhelming majority of crashes” and “dramatically decrease the number of crashes tied to human choices and behavior.”

This is fantastic news. I am an auto accident attorney and the current President of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association, so I bring a unique perspective to autonomous vehicle technology. For the past 20 years I’ve been helping people who have been seriously hurt in all sorts of motor vehicle accidents, in Michigan and around the country. All of these crashes had one thing in common: they were all preventable and all caused by humans who make very human mistakes behind the wheel. I’ve seen texting, surfing pornography, alcohol and drugs all cause crashes.

We can do better. I welcome the day that I must switch careers (or, at least, areas of my legal practice) because autonomous, self-driving-vehicle technology have reduced the numbers of car accidents to a fraction of what they are today.

Perfection is not the standard. Motor vehicle crashes may never be completely eliminated, but it will be far better than the thousands of car accidents that we see today. This is the measure by which we should be comparing this driverless technology.

That’s why I’m so pleased with the position taken by the federal government – through the U.S. DOT – and its recently released policy statement.

Although any time is a good time for the announcement of the U.S. DOT’s self-driving car policy – especially given the pace at which states and corporations are racing toward our driverless-car future – the timing is particularly significant here in Michigan where lawmakers are even now considering a wide-ranging package of bills that will revolutionize what the Great Lakes State is doing and will do with autonomous cars. It’s an issue I’ve been following closely on the pages of this Auto Law Blog.

After receiving unanimous support from the Michigan Senate, Senate Bills 995-998 were scheduled for a hearing before the House Communications and Technology Committee on September 20, 2016.

As is clear from the U.S. DOT’s autonomous vehicle policy, we, as a country, are squarely on the road to a future filled with self-driving, driverless cars.

There will still be car accidents with driverless cars, especially in the early years of its adoption. But there will be far less of them than there are today.

Below are the pertinent highlights of the U.S. DOT’s 116-page “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” as I was reading through it yesterday and today.

Driverless cars will mean fewer car accidents. It doesn’t mean there will be no car accidents.

Here’s what the country’s most prominent safety officials – and safety advocates including the President of the United States – have to say about the new “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy” and its life-saving potential:

  • “[T]he Department of Transportation has been exceptionally forward-leaning on automated vehicles” because “the promise of automated vehicles” is that “we could potentially prevent or mitigate 19 of every 20 crashes on the road.” – NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.
  • “Right now, too many people die on our roads – 35,200 last year alone – with 94 percent of those the result of human error or choice. Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year. And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives.” – President Barack Obama

15-point safety assessment for automated vehicle technologies

In its section on “Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles,” the U.S. DOT’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy provides that “manufacturers and other entities” be required “to submit a Safety Assessment to NHTSA’s Office of the Chief Counsel for each HAV [highly automated vehicle] system,” which “would assist NHTSA, and the public, in evaluating how safety is being addressed by manufacturers and other entities developing and testing HAV systems.”

Specifically, as described in the “Fact Sheet: Federal Automated Vehicles Policy Overview,” 15-point safety assessment would cover the following areas:

  1. Operational Design Domain: How and where the HAV is supposed to function and operate;
  2. Object and Event Detection and Response: Perception and response functionality of the HAV system;
  3. Fall Back (Minimal Risk Condition): Response and robustness of the HAV upon system failure;
  4. Validation Methods: Testing, validation, and verification of an HAV system;
  5. Registration and Certification: Registration and certification to NHTSA of an HAV system;
  6. Data Recording and Sharing: HAV system data recording for information sharing, knowledge building and for crash reconstruction purposes;
  7. Post-Crash Behavior: Process for how an HAV should perform after a crash and how automation functions can be restored;
  8. Privacy: Privacy considerations and protections for users;
  9. System Safety: Engineering safety practices to support reasonable system safety;
  10. Vehicle Cybersecurity: Approaches to guard against vehicle hacking risks;
  11. Human Machine Interface: Approaches for communicating information to the driver, occupant and other road users;
  12. Crashworthiness: Protection of occupants in crash situations;
  13. Consumer Education and Training: Education and training requirements for users of HAVs;
  14. Ethical Considerations: How vehicles are programmed to address conflict dilemmas on the road; and,
  15. Federal, State and Local Laws: How vehicles are programmed to comply with all applicable traffic laws.


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