NHTSA Proposes Easing Certain Regulatory Requirements for Self-Driving Vehicles

Transportation Update

Date: March 23, 2020

On March 17, 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) aiming to remove unnecessary barriers to vehicles equipped with automated driving systems (ADS) and proposing to amend and modernize 11 of its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) related to crashworthiness and occupant protection.

While an important first step, NHTSA explains that its NPRM should be viewed as part of a series of regulatory actions it will take to address the challenges associated with ADS-equipped vehicles “that lack the traditional manual controls necessary for human drivers, but that are otherwise traditional vehicles with typical seating configurations.” NHTSA notes that until it modernizes all FMVSS to address the technological innovations inherent in ADS-equipped vehicles, it “expects that the manufacturers … will seek exemptions from those FMVSS requirements that implicitly or explicitly require manual controls.”

In general, NHTSA’s proposed changes address the application of certain FMVSS to ADS-equipped vehicles, such as adding definitions to clarify the application of standards to ADS-equipped vehicles; clarifying the application of some occupant protection standards to vehicles designed to carry objects; clarifying the application of FMVSS to motor vehicles without a steering wheel or steering column; modernizing the rules to address issues related to vehicles without a driver’s seat, but having multiple outboard passenger seats; and addressing the treatment of advanced air bags and advanced air bag suppression telltales in light of the expectation that a child occupant of an ADS-equipped vehicle may eventually sit in what we now consider the driver’s seat.

Specifically, NHTSA seeks comments on the following proposals that would amend 11 of its crashworthiness Series 200 FMVSS:

  • FMVSS No. 201 (Occupant protection in interior impact): This standard provides performance requirements to protect occupants from injury due to impact with interior surfaces. NHTSA proposes to amend it to permit the certification of vehicles without a driver’s seat or steering controls.
  • FMVSS No. 203 (Impact protection for the driver from the steering control system) and No. 204 (Steering control rearward displacement): NHTSA proposes to amend these FMVSS to state that these standards do not apply to vehicles without steering controls. NHTSA believes that it would not reduce the vehicle’s safety because a driver’s seat in an ADS-equipped vehicle would become a passenger seat, which would be subject to the protections provided by FMVSS No. 201.
  • FMVSS No. 205 (Glazing materials): NHTSA proposes to amend this standard to ensure that it would apply to trucks only if they have at least one designated seating position (DSP).
  • FMVSS No. 206 (Door locks and door retention components): NHTSA proposes to amend this standard to ensure that it would apply to trucks only if they have at least one DSP. It also proposes to make changes to the definitions of “side front door” and “side rear door” to ensure that the standard can apply to vehicles without a driver’s seat.
  • FMVSS No. 207 (Seating systems): NHTSA proposes to amend this standard to ensure that it would apply to trucks only if they have at least one DSP. It also proposes to amend the language to clarify that a driver’s seat would only be required for manually operated vehicles.
  • FMVSS No. 208 (Occupant crash protection): NHTSA proposes to make significant changes to this standard, which is designed to “reduce the number of deaths and injuries to vehicle occupants in the event of a crash.” It proposes to amend this standard to clarify that it would apply to trucks only if they have at least one DSP. NHTSA also proposes to amend the language to require that “all front outboard passenger seats [which would include the driver’s seat in ADS-equipped vehicles] meet the crash test performance requirements presently performed on the right front outboard passenger seat.” Additionally, NHTSA requests comments on whether the final rule should require air bag and lap/shoulder seat belt protection for seats that may be moved to the center seating position in ADS-equipped vehicles. NHTSA’s other proposals include requiring all front outboard seating positions to be subject to passenger advanced air bag requirements; requiring each front outboard passenger seat with a suppression-based advanced air bag system to have a unique telltale; requiring systems that disallow motion if a child is detected in the driver’s seat of an ADS-equipped vehicle that has manual controls; changes to the driver’s seat used as a spatial reference; and clarifying the test dummy positionings in ADS-equipped vehicles.
  • FMVSS No. 214 (Side impact protection): NHTSA proposes to amend this standard to ensure that it would apply to trucks only if they have at least one DSP. Proposed amendments also include clarifications on front outboard passenger seats, test dummy positionings and spatial reference to driver’s seat in ADS-equipped vehicles.
  • FMVSS No. 216a (Roof crush resistance; upgraded standard): NHTSA proposes to amend this standard to ensure that it would apply to trucks only if they have at least one DSP. Proposed amendments also include clarifying the spatial reference to the driver’s seat in ADS-equipped vehicles
  • FMVSS No. 225 (Child restraint anchorage systems): NHTSA proposes to modify the definition of “shuttle bus” to ensure that ADS-equipped buses fall under its scope.
  • FMVSS No. 226 (Ejection mitigation): NHTSA proposes to amend this standard to ensure that it would apply to trucks only if they have at least one DSP. It also proposes additional modifications to ensure that the standard applies to ADS-equipped vehicles and to clarify spatial references in ADS-equipped vehicles.
  • Regulatory text related to parking brake and transmission position: NHTSA seeks comments on the validity of its conclusion that the crash tests required by Series 200 FMVSS do not require manual driving controls to conduct the tests.

NHTSA is seeking public comments on the proposed changes as well as whether any additional changes are necessary or appropriate. Comments are due 60 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information, please contact:

Karyn A. Booth
Partner, Transportation
202.263.4108
Karyn.Booth@ThompsonHine.com

Tim Goodman
Partner, Transportation
202.263.4117
Tim.Goodman@ThompsonHine.com

Will Godfrey*
Director, Mobility, Automation and Safety
202.263.4119
Will.Godfrey@ThompsonHine.com
*Not licensed to practice law

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