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DOT announces policy for automated vehicles; move could accelerate crash-stopping tech

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In a move that ought to provide direction for states and manufacturers on the hot but controversial technology, the Department of Transportation on Tuesday announced its first crack at a federal policy for self-driving cars.

Such guidance might speed up development and ultimately the sale of the technology — both for private use as well as commercial applications like trucking and transportation (buses or taxis).

The sooner that happens across public, private and commercial fleets, the sooner the collision repair and auto insurance business models change forever. Human drivers are considered responsible for 90 percent of crashes, so the sooner they delegate driving, the sooner shops have fewer wrecks to fix. But of course, the number of people hurt or killed in crashes falls dramatically.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.”

Shops and insurers will feel that change far sooner than the market-ready debut of full autonomy (the car drives itself while the occupants sleep — or aren’t present at all).  OEMs working to reach that Holy Grail will be able to use what they learn to refine the advanced driver’s assistance systems — a form of autonomy in themselves — or semi-autonomy available on luxury cars today or with the 2017 model year.

But while “autonomous is the sexy,” the “journey that gets us there” makes the real change, Sean Carey of SCG Management Consultants said earlier this month, pointing out frequency and severity forecasts by KPMG.

This KPMG prediction indicates collision frequency will fall dramatically by 2040. (Provided by KPMG)

This KPMG graphic predicts collision severity will increase dramatically by 2040. (Provided by KPMG)

And so, it’s a big deal that the DOT has made it easier for those OEMs and the industries supporting them to do all of this with the document issued Tuesday.

“Public input has been essential to getting this right. There has been a strong call from state and local governments, industry, safety experts, mobility advocates, and average Americans to establish a clear policy for the deployment of automated vehicles on our roads,” Foxx said in another statement. “There are huge upsides and significant challenges that come with automated vehicle technology, and we will continue the conversation with the (public) over the coming months and years as this technology develops.”

The DOT wrote that the “primary focus of the policy is on highly automated vehicles, or those in which the vehicle can take full control of the driving task in at least some circumstances.” But the document would in places also extend to “lower levels of automation, including some of the driver-assistance systems already being deployed by automakers today.”

According to the DOT, the new policy offers OEMs some best practices — and “immediate short term” expectations for testing the vehicles before it actually lets the general public drive them (so to speak).

It also gives any states which want to allow self-driving car tests on their roads — some have already — a model for how to do it and what it expects at the national and state levels. Notably, states would stay in charge of licensing, registration and car insurance/liability under the plug-and-play sample model.

“Today, a motorist can drive across state lines without a worry more complicated than, ‘did the speed limit change?’ The integration of HAVs should not change that ability,” the policy states.

“Similarly, a manufacturer should be able to focus on developing a single HAV fleet rather than 50 different versions to meet individual state requirements. State governments play an important role in facilitating HAVs, ensuring they are safely deployed, and promoting their life-saving benefits. The Model State Policy confirms that States retain their traditional responsibilities for vehicle licensing and registration, traffic
laws and enforcement, and motor vehicle insurance and liability regimes.”

The policy also reinforces the NHTSA’s current role (recalls, defects, etc.) and examines where it and other agencies might need to go in the future to keep everyone safe.

The speed with which HAVs are advancing, combined with the complexity and novelty of these innovations, threatens to outpace the Agency’s
conventional regulatory processes and capabilities,” the policy states.

“This challenge requires DOT to examine whether the way DOT has addressed safety for the last 50 years should be expanded to realize the safety potential of automated vehicles over the next 50 years.”

Speaking of the immediate term and recalls, the agency also Tuesday warned automakers that it’ll recall semi-autonomous technology relying on driver-car baton passing if it isn’t well-thought-out by an OEM; that separate guidance bulletin seems to hint at both the high-profile fatal Tesla Autopilot crash and the death of actor Anton Yelchin.

Most of the document is in effect now, but the DOT expects to refine and build upon it every year, and it wants to know what you think about the policy.

Those interested can leave comments over the next two months. Find out how to do so here and here and on the policy’s official webpage.

“New technologies developed in the 20th century, like seat belts and air bags, were once controversial but have now saved hundreds of thousands of American lives,” Foxx said in a statement. “This is the first in a series of proactive approaches, including the release of a rule on Vehicle to Vehicle communications, which will bring lifesaving technologies to the roads safely and quickly while leaving innovators to dream up new safety solutions.”

More information:

“U.S. DOT issues Federal Policy for safe testing and deployment of automated vehicles”

Department of Transportation via NHTSA, Sept. 20, 2016

“Federal Automated Vehicles Policy”

Department of Transportation, Sept. 20, 2016

Federal Automated Vehicles Policy website

Featured image: In a move that ought to provide direction for states and manufacturers on the hot but controversial technology, the Department of Transportation on Tuesday announced its first crack at a federal policy for self-driving cars. (Screenshot from NHTSA video on YouTube)

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