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New NHTSA Robocar regulations are a major, but positive, reversal

NHTSA released their latest draft robocar regulations just a week after the U.S. House passed a new regulatory regime and the senate started working on its own. The proposed regulations preempt state regulation of vehicle design, and allow companies to apply for high volume exemptions from the standards that exist for human-driven cars.

It's clear that the new approach will be quite different from the Obama-era one, much more hands-off. There are not a lot of things to like about the Trump administration but this could be one of them. The prior regulations reached 116 pages with much detail, though they were mostly listed as "voluntary." I wrote a long critique of the regulations in a 4 part series which can be found in my NHTSA tag. They seem to have paid attention to that commentary and the similar commentary of others.

At 26 pages, the new report is much more modest, and actually says very little. Indeed, I could sum it up as follows:

  • Do the stuff you're already doing
  • Pay attention to where and when your car can drive and document that
  • Document your processes internally and for the public
  • Go to the existing standards bodies (SAE, ISO etc.) for guidance
  • Create a standard data format for your incident logs
  • Don't forget all the work on crash avoidance, survival and post-crash safety in modern cars that we worked very hard on
  • Plans for how states and the feds will work together on regulating this

Goals vs. Approaches

The document does a better job at understanding the difference between goals -- public goods that it is the government's role to promote -- and approaches to those goals, which should be entirely the province of industry.

The new document is much more explicit that the 12 "safety design elements" are voluntary. I continue to believe that there is a risk they may not be truly voluntary, as there will be great pressure to conform with them, and possible increased liability for those who don't, but the new document tries to avoid that, and its requests are much milder.

The document understands the important realization that developers in this space will be creating new paths to safety and establishing new and different concepts of best practices. Existing standards have value, but they can at best encode conventional wisdom. Robocars will not be created using conventional wisdom. The new document takes the approach of more likely recommending that the existing standards be considered, which is a reasonable plan.

A lightweight regulatory philosophy

My own analysis is guided by a lightweight regulatory approach which has been the norm until now. The government's role is to determine important public goals and interests, and to use regulations and enforcement when, and only when, it becomes clear that industry can't be trusted to meet these goals on its own.

In particular, the government should very rarely regulate how something should be done, and focus instead on what needs to happen as the end result, and why. In the past, all automotive safety technologies were developed by vendors and deployed, sometimes for decades, before they were regulated. When they were regulated, it was more along the lines of "All cars should now have anti-lock brakes." Only with the more mature technologies have the regulations had to go into detail on how to build them.

Worthwhile public goals include safety, of course, and the promotion of innovation. We want to encourage both competition and cooperation in the right places. We want to protect consumer rights and privacy. (The prior regulations proposed a mandatory sharing of incident data which is watered down greatly in these new regulations.)

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NTSB Tesla Crash report (New NHTSA regs to come)

The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has released a preliminary report on the fatal Tesla crash with the full report expected later this week. The report is much less favourable to autopilots than their earlier evaluation.

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NHTSA Regulations part 4: Crashes, Training, Certification, State Law, Operation, Validation and Autopilots

After my initial reactions and Overall Analysis here is a point by point consideration of second set of elements from NHTSA's 15 point certification list for robocars. See my series for other articles or the first half of the list.

Crashworthiness

In this section, the remind vendors they still need to meet the same standards as regular cars do. We are not ready to start removing heavy passive safety systems just because the vehicles get in fewer crashes. In the future we might want to change that, as those systems can be 1/3 of the weight of a vehicle.

They also note that different seating configurations (like rear facing seats) need to protect as well. It's already the case that rear facing seats will likely be better in forward collisions. Face-to-face seating may present some challenges in this environment, as it is less clear how to deploy the airbags. Taxis in London often feature face-to-face seating, though that is less common in the USA. Will this be possible under these regulations?

The rules also call for unmanned vehicles to absorb energy like existing vehicles. I don't know if this is a requirement on unusual vehicle design for regular cars or not. (If it were, it would have prohibited SUVs with their high bodies that can cause a bad impact with a low-body sports-car.)

Consumer Education and Training

This seems like another mild goal, but we don't want a world where you can't ride in a taxi unless you are certified as having taking a training course. Especially if it's one for which you have very little to do. These rules are written more for people buying a car (for whom training can make sense) than those just planning to be a passenger.

Registration and Certification

This section imagines labels for drivers. It's pretty silly and not very practical. Is a car going to have a sticker saying "This car can drive itself on Elm St. south of Pine, or on highway 101 except in Gilroy?" There should be another way, not labels, that this is communicated, especially because it will change all the time.

Post-Crash Behavior

This set is fairly reasonable -- it requires a process describing what you do to a vehicle after a crash before it goes back into service.

Federal, State and Local Laws

This section calls for a detailed plan on how to assure compliance with all the laws. Interestingly, it also asks for a plan on how the vehicle will violate laws that human drivers sometimes violate. This is one of the areas where regulatory effort is necessary, because strictly cars are not allowed to violate the law -- doing things like crossing the double-yellow line to pass a car blocking your path.

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NHTSA Regulations part 3: Data Sharing, Privacy, Safety, Security and HMI

After my initial reactions and Overall Analysis here is a point by point consideration of the elements from NHTSA's 15 point certification list for robocars. See also the second half and the whole series

Let's dig in:

Data Recording and Sharing

These regulations require a plan about how the vehicle keep logs around any incident (while following privacy rules.) This is something everybody already does -- in fact they keep logs of everything for now -- since they want to debug any problems they encounter. NHTSA wants the logs to be available to NHTSA for crash investigation.

NHTSA also wants recordings of positive events (the system avoided a problem.)

Most interesting is a requirement for a data sharing plan. NHTSA wants companies to share their logs with their competitors in the event of incidents and important non-incidents, like near misses or detection of difficult objects.

This is perhaps the most interesting element of the plan, but it has seen some resistance from vendors. And it is indeed something that might not happen at scale without regulation. Many teams will consider their set of test data to be part of their crown jewels. Such test data is only gathered by spending many millions of dollars to send drivers out on the roads, or by convincing customers or others to voluntarily supervise while their cars gather test data, as Tesla has done. A large part of the head-start that leaders have in this field is the amount of different road situations they have been able to expose their vehicles to. Recordings of mundane driving activity are less exciting and will be easier to gather. Real world incidents are rare and gold for testing. The sharing is not as golden, because each vehicle will have different sensors, located in different places, so it will not be easy to adapt logs from one vehicle directly to another. While a vehicle system can play its own raw logs back directly to see how it performs in the same situation, other vehicles won't readily do that.

Instead this offers the ability to build something that all vendors want and need, and the world needs, which is a high quality simulator where cars can be tested against real world recordings and entirely synthetic events. The data sharing requirement will allow the input of all these situations into the simulator, so every car can test how it would have performed. This simulation will mostly be at the "post perception level" where the car has (roughly) identified all the things on the road and is figuring out what to do with them, but some simulation could be done at lower levels.

These data logs and simulator scenarios will create what is known as a regression test suite. You test your car in all the situations, and every time you modify the software, you test that your modifications didn't break something that used to work. It's an essential tool.

In the history of software, there have been shared public test suites (often sourced from academia) and private ones that are closely guarded. For some time, I have proposed that it might be very useful if there were a a public and open source simulator environment which all teams could contribute scenarios to, but I always expected most contributions would come from academics and the open source community. Without this rule, the teams with the most test miles under their belts might be less willing to contribute.

Such a simulator would help all teams and level the playing field. It would allow small innovators to even build and test prototype ideas entirely in simulator, with very low cost and zero risk compared to building it in physical hardware.

This is a great example of where NHTSA could use its money rather than its regulatory power to improve safety, by funding the development of such test tools. In fact, if done open source, the agencies and academic institutions of the world could fund a global one. (This would face opposition from companies hoping to sell test tools, but there will still be openings for proprietary test tools.)

Privacy

This section demands a privacy policy. I'm not against that, though of course the history of privacy policies is not a great one. They mostly involve people clicking "I agree" to things they don't read. More important is the requirement that vendors be thinking about privacy.

The requirement for user choice is an interesting one, and it conflicts with the logging requirements. People are wary of technology that will betray them in court. Of course, as long as the car is not a hybrid car that mixes human driving with self-driving, and the passenger is not liable in an accident, there should be minimal risk to the passenger from accidents being recorded.

The rules require that personal information be scrubbed from any published data. This is a good idea but history shows it is remarkably hard to do properly.

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Detailed analysis of NHTSA robocar regulations: Overview

The recent Federal Automated Vehicles Policy is long. (My same-day analysis is here and the whole series is being released.) At 116 pages (to be fair, less than half is policy declarations and the rest is plans for the future and associated materials) it is much larger than many of us were expecting.

The policy was introduced with a letter attributed to President Obama, where he wrote:

There are always those who argue that government should stay out of free enterprise entirely, but I think most Americans would agree we still need rules to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe. That’s the general principle here. What’s more, the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies. Both government and industry have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. And make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety.

This leads in to an unprecedented effort to write regulations for a technology that barely exists and has not been deployed beyond the testing stage. The history of automotive regulation has been the opposite, and so this is a major change. The key question is what justifies such a big change, and the cost that will come with it.

Make no mistake, the cost will be real. The cost of regulations is rarely known in advance but it is rarely small. Regulations slow all players down and make them more cautious -- indeed it is sometimes their goal to cause that caution. Regulations result in projects needing "compliance departments" and the establishment of procedures and legal teams to assure they are complied with. In almost all cases, regulations punish small companies and startups more than they punish big players. In some cases, big players even welcome regulation, both because it slows down competitors and innovators, and because they usually also have skilled governmental affairs teams and lobbying teams which are able to subtly bend the regulations to match their needs.

This need not even be nefarious, though it often is. Companies that can devote a large team to dealing with regulations, those who can always send staff to meetings and negotiations and public comment sessions will naturally do better than those which can't.

The US has had a history of regulating after the fact. Of being the place where "if it's not been forbidden, it's permitted." This is what has allowed many of the most advanced robocar projects to flourish in the USA.

The attitude has been that industry (and startups) should lead and innovate. Only if the companies start doing something wrong or harmful, and market forces won't stop them from being that way, is it time for the regulators to step in and make the errant companies do better. This approach has worked far better than the idea that regulators would attempt to understand a product or technology before it is deployed, imagine how it might go wrong, and make rules to keep the companies in line before any of them have shown evidence of crossing a line.

In spite of all I have written here, the robocar industry is still young. There are startups yet to be born which will develop new ideas yet to be imagined that change how everybody thinks about robocars and transportation. These innovative teams will develop new concepts of what it means to be safe and how to make things safe. Their ideas will be obvious only well after the fact.

Regulations and standards don't deal well with that. They can only encode conventional wisdom. "Best practices" are really "the best we knew before the innovators came." Innovators don't ignore the old wisdom willy-nilly, they often ignore it or supersede it quite deliberately.

What's good?

Some players -- notably the big ones -- have lauded these regulations. Big players, like car companies, Google, Uber and others have a reason to prefer regulations over a wild west landscape. Big companies like certainty. They need to know that if they build a product, that it will be legal to sell it. They can handle the cost of complex regulations, as long as they know they can build it.

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Critique of NHTSA's newly released regulations

The long awaited list of recommendations and potential regulations for Robocars has just been released by NHTSA, the federal agency that regulates car safety and safety issues in car manufacture. Normally, NHTSA does not regulate car technology before it is released into the market, and the agency, while it says it is wary of slowing down this safety-increasing technology, has decided to do the unprecedented -- and at a whopping 115 pages.

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Actually, 50 different state regulations is not that bad an idea

At the recent AUVSI/TRB conference in San Francisco, there was much talk of upcoming regulation, particularly from NHTSA. Secretary of Transportation Foxx and his NHTSA staff spoke with just vague hints about what might come in the proposals due this fall. Generally, they said good things, namely that they are wary of slowing down the development of the technology. But they said things that suggest other directions.

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A Critique of the NHTSA "Levels" for robocars

Last year, the NHTSA released a document defining "levels" from 0 to 4 for self-driving technology. People are eager for taxonomy that lets them talk about the technology, so it's no surprise that use of the levels has caught on.

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