Operation, testing data could drive autonomous vehicle safety, regulations

Operation, testing data could drive autonomous vehicle safety, regulations

As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration works to safely integrate autonomous vehicles onto the nation’s roadways, lawmakers and industry advocates are wrestling with the federal government’s role in regulating a rapidly evolving – and potentially life-saving --  technology.

At a Nov. 16 hearing of the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, Chairman Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) called for balance between innovation and oversight to “help ensure that automakers are able to bring the safety and mobility benefits of autonomous vehicles into the marketplace without unnecessary government regulations.”

The regulatory process is not keeping pace with the technology, according to Alliance for Transportation Innovation (ATI21), a consortium of transportation technology innovators and researchers working with the government to safely deploy autonomous vehicles.

“We see evidence of a significant gap in understanding these technologies within all levels of government,” ATI21 President and CEO Paul Brubaker said at the hearing. “It’s a gap that must be bridged so regulators can better understand when it’s best to lead, follow or move out of the way.”

The Obama administration and the Department of Transportation have laid the regulatory groundwork. Brubaker said DOT’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy released in September is a good first-step in covering vehicle design and for developing an iterative approach to regulations that could evolve with technology.

Still, the ATI21 is concerned about the policy’s use of existing regulatory tools. Brubaker said the current federal vehicle safety standards  governing traditional vehicles, for example, would not be appropriate for autonomous vehicle designs. Additionally, the possible regulatory approaches offered by the federal policy -- such as preapproval of designs -- are also flawed.

“The rapid development of autonomous vehicles presents us with an opportunity to revisit our regulatory approach and offer reforms that are more suitable to the digital age,” Brubaker said in his testimony.

And the way to improve the regulatory process, he said, is with data. Specifically, with a national central data repository for collecting, storing and analyzing all near-real-time operational and testing data could be used to help industry and NHTSA quickly spot real and potential issues.

It would be a highly secure, trusted, opt-in data repository with incentives to encourage participation. “Such a repository would help us better understand the level of safety and performance, as well as enable us to identify real and emerging potential issues and inform regulators, industry and the public,” Brubaker said. ATI21 recommended establishing an independent federally charted organization to collect and analyze this data.

Cybersecurity is another top concern with autonomous vehicles, and according to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, whose agency has been working with industry to take action before incidents occur. Work so far includes supporting an Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center within the industry, the recent release of the NHTSA Cybersecurity Best Practices for Modern Vehicles and the industry’s release of its own cybersecurity best practices.

According to Brubaker, the NHTSA practices are not new, and while regulations can be set and followed, they aren’t effective unless they can react to the changing adversarial environment and require constant risk assessments.

He suggested NHTSA to talk to those successfully working with embedded-system cybersecurity.  “I think the one thing that we can do is look across the river, look to the ... intelligence community for lessons learned on how they do encryption, how they do authentication,” he said. Brubaker also encouraged industry to play close attention to supply chain integrity, and ensure vehicle components are fully secured.

Ultimately, the transition to autonomous vehicles will require high levels of cooperation and engagement across government, industry and the public, with leadership from the incoming administration and Congress. ATI21’s recently published National Strategic Framework for self-driving vehicles intends to accelerate deployment and address key challenges. It has been presented to President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.

ATI21 also is urging the next president to issue an executive order describing the challenges associated with self-driving vehicles and creating a Program Management Office within the Office of Science and Technology Policy to advance autonomous vehicles.

While ATI21 waits for feedback on its framework, Brubaker said he is confident that the new administration will be open to new ideas. And he is not particularly concerned with the ability of federal and state agencies and industry to work together under the new administration. “I think it’s coming, and people are just going to adjust,” he told GCN. “It’s innovation -- you’re not going to slow it down.”

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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