NHTSA autonomous car guidelines coming by July

Google self-driving Lexus RX 450h in Kirkland, Washington

Some guidelines may be coming to the fast-developing world of autonomous vehicles. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) intends to do its part by issuing an initial set of guidelines by July, according to Read/Write. The NHTSA’s hope is that the guidelines will bring some order and, hopefully, some common ground to current usage and future development of self-driving cars and trucks.

While the NHTSA will be releasing guidelines, they should not be considered set in stone. For one thing, they’re guidelines, not law. Second, vehicle autonomy is a quickly developing field and the NHTSA recognizes some elements or standards may change.

“What is unusual is everybody expects regulation comes out and that’s what it is forever, and NHTSA’s job is [to] react and enforce it. That will not work with this area. I think we’re going to have something different in July,” said Dr. Mark Rosekind, NHTSA senior administrator.

One of the concerns of the agency, as well as of automakers and others in the autonomous vehicle industry, is that different states have different laws and regulations regulating how autonomous cars can operate on their roads, and without consensus, preferably directed from the federal level, those differences could grow. Without consistent rules and regulations, autonomous car development will slow down at a time when the technology is becoming ready and other parts of the world are forging ahead.

Four areas will be addressed in the NHTSA guidelines; deployment, state policies, clarified process terminology, and new tools. Deployment addresses the ability to test, sell, and drive autonomous cars. State policies encompasses suggestions for standard regulations. “New tools” for use by regulators was not defined, but there was better information about autonomous levels and process terminology.

Currently, there are five levels of vehicle autonomy, according to Electrek.

Level 0, No Automation, is when the driver is in control of everything in the vehicle and of everything the vehicle does.

Level 1,  Function-specific Automation, is when one or more features in the car can assist the driver, such as ESC (electronics stability control) but any such functions operate independently of other functions. ESC wouldn’t work automatically with assisted braking, for example.

Level 2, Combined Function Automation, is when a combination of specific functions work together. A good example is adaptive cruise control with lane detection.

Level 3, Limited Self-Driving Automation, applies where the driver can in some instances turn over control to the vehicle, but still must remain ready to take over if alerted by the system. Tesla’s current autopilot feature used on the highway is an example of Level 3.

Level 4, Self-Driving Automation, is the level that has industry and government participants the most excited and the most concerned, often at the same time. With level 4, there essentially is no driver. A person gets in a car (or calls it via smartphone), and announces a destination, and the vehicle, with or without passengers, takes it from there.

These levels and the guidelines that the NHTSA will release will qualify as solid first drafts. Here’s hoping all parties are able to work together to advance the technology expeditiously and with due caution.