As other states seek to join California in allowing autonomous or “self-driving”
vehicles on their roadways, the National Highway Transportation Safety
Administration (NHTSA) has released a policy statement containing rules
and regulations for these new vehicles.
While the agency is optimistic about the new technology’s ability
motor vehicle accidents, it also wants to make sure the technology is safe before it is made available
to the public.
“We’re encouraged by the new automated vehicle technologies
being developed and implemented today, but want to ensure that motor vehicle
safety is considered in the development of these advances,” said
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “As additional states consider similar
legislation, our recommendations provide lawmakers with the tools they
need to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated
The policy statement first breaks down vehicle automation into several
level, which are largely defined by the level of human involvement:
Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions.
Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where
the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to
regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.
Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions
designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions.
An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive
cruise control in combination with lane centering.
Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control
of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental
conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor
for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control.
The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with
sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example
of limited self-driving automation.
Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions
and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates
that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not
expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This
includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.
When it comes to self-driving vehicle like the Goggle car, the agency is
still cautious about safety and plans to conduct its own research on the
“NHTSA does not recommend that states authorize the operation of
self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing at this time,”
the agency said in its statement. “We believe there are a number
of technological issues as well as human performance issues that must
be addressed before self-driving vehicles can be made widely available.”
Going forward, the NHTSA also calls for separate driver licenses, or at
least special driver license endorsements, for autonomous vehicles.