On March 15, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that autonomous vehicle (AV) petitions from General Motors (GM) and Nuro were advancing to the Federal Register for a 60-day public review and comment period. While both petitions have been met with interest, it is GM’s petition—which seeks approval to put an AV without a steering wheel or pedals on public roads—that is grabbing the spotlight.
The petition, which is the first such request from an AV developer to test a vehicle without standard human controls on a public road, will also be the first time NHTSA compares a vehicle in which all the driving decisions are made by a computer with a human driver. By opening up the petition to public comments, it will also be the first time the public will be able to formally voice their views to the federal government on AVs.
Because of this wide array of firsts, this GM petition is highly important. Not only does it potentially represent a significant opportunity for public input on AVs, but the reaction to this petition will set precedents on NHTSA’s views and requirements for AV safety.
If the petitions are successful, both GM and Nuro will gain exemptions from current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) rules. Written years ago, with no concept that AVs would ever be developed, the FMVSS rules assume human drivers would always be in control of a vehicle. As a result, specific designs, controls (such as steering wheels and brakes) and safety measures have all been mandated under these rules. To gain an exemption would allow automakers to test novel designs that could – down the line – make mobility easier for millions of people. It is also possible that flexible designs allowed by exemptions could lead to more accessible vehicles, improving transportation for the 6 million disabled people in the U.S. who have difficulty in accessing the transportation they need.
Yet despite its name, an exemption does not release vehicles from safety standards. To gain an exemption, GM will have to prove its AV is at least as safe as other vehicles on the road, potentially requiring reams of data as proof. Vehicles that undergo this scrutiny will be among the most vetted cars on our streets.
To make their case, both GM’s and Nuro’s petitions make a similar legal argument: Since an AV with a steering wheel (or other human-centered design element) is legal under NHTSA regulations, their modified systems should be judged against that standard. Nuro’s petition seeks exemptions from fewer standards than GM’s, as they are developing a low-speed delivery vehicle with no human occupants: For example, Nuro seeks approval not to include a windshield in the vehicle.
The petitions also show that AVs are beginning to transition from the drawing board to real life. Gen. James T. Conway, the 34th U.S. Marine Corps Commandant and co-chair of SAFE’s Energy Security Leadership Council, states, “Fully autonomous vehicles, and the many benefits that they offer to our society, are crossing the threshold from concept to reality. This is a watershed moment in automotive history that regulators and consumers should embrace. We applaud GM’s bold vision, and trust that DOT and NHTSA will take the appropriate steps to evaluate this request.”
Once deployed, AVs hold the potential to generate public benefits worth up to $850 billion per year by 2050, by dramatically reducing the accident rate on U.S. roads, cutting oil consumption, and mitigating congestion. These petitions—and GM’s in particular—represent the first step toward realizing these tremendous benefits. As a result, the reaction to this first petition is crucial.