In the wake of today’s NTSB report about Tesla’s autopilot crash, DOT/NHTSA has released updated guidelines on autonomous vehicle systems, meant to be used by state and local governments and vehicle manufacturers to help facilitate the transition to self-driving cars.  NHTSA claims in the introduction to the report that 94% of fatal crashes are the result of human error, and that autonomous drive systems have the potential to reduce that number significantly, saving tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars of lost economic activity each year in the process.

NHTSA also claims that they expect “fully automated safety features” and “highway autopilot” in the years 2025+, which is significantly later than Tesla’s timeline for the same technology.  Tesla is rather close to “highway autopilot” already – though Tesla’s system is “level 2” (partial automation) on the highway and NHTSA seems to be thinking more about level 4-5 (high/full automation, not requiring reminders that the driver keep paying attention).

Here’s the full document, which is targeted more towards policy wonks, whereas the main site is meant to appeal to everyone, with FAQs and nice graphics.

These guidelines are voluntary, and are mostly just reminders of best practices based on NHTSA research into autonomous systems.  They will help state and local governments design laws around the advent of autonomous driving, and manufacturers to build self-driving cars with proper fallbacks in the event of system failures and educate consumers on the use of autonomous systems.

As this document is primarily a list of voluntary guidelines, there is nothing new within it which has the force of law behind it.  It’s merely a list of issues that might come up with autonomous drive systems, and how the entities responsible for building them or regulating them might want to consider those issues ahead of time.

For example, it encourages state governments to set up licensing regimes under which vehicle manufacturers can test autonomous drive systems with experimental vehicles.  It notably also encourages those governments to allow software manufacturers, such as Google or comma.ai, to apply for licensing in this way, as “no data suggests that experience in vehicle manufacturing is an indicator of the ability to safely test or deploy vehicle technology.”  California has already implemented something like this, with a long list of manufacturers already holding permits for autonomous drive testing.

There are plenty of other suggestions in the document – that vehicle manufacturers make user interfaces clear so drivers know what autonomous mode the vehicle is in, or if any part of the system is failing; that cars be ready to pull over in the event of a failure, whether the human operator is paying attention or not; that they have robust cybersecurity so nobody can hack into vehicle drive systems; that autonomous systems have robust data recording capabilities so that later analysis can help to improve not just one manufacturer’s autonomous drive systems but perhaps lead to better regulations for all autonomous drive systems (as we have a clear example of with today’s NTSB report on the Tesla crash, mentioned above).

The document also promises assistance from NHTSA/DOT to state governments which are looking to integrate autonomous drive systems onto public roadways.  They also want states to cooperate with each other in creating reasonably consistent laws state-to-state and for states to conform to national standards on “traffic control devices” (stop signs and such) so that autonomous drive systems are not confused by traffic markings which vary widely between locations (these are covered in the federal “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” which does have the force of law behind it).

In a separate but parallel effort, the “Self Drive Act”, which is currently in the federal legislative process and was passed by the House last week, aims to reinforce NHTSA’s federal control over safety regulations relating to autonomous vehicles.  But state governments will still have a responsibility to make sure that their laws regarding licensing, insurance, traffic markings, etc. are aware of the fact that autonomous vehicles are coming, and this document sets out guidelines for them to do their part to prepare for the rise of autonomous driving.

By laying out these guidelines, it seems like DOT is encouraging many new entities to start thinking about autonomous drive systems, while providing some catch-up tools for those who are a bit late to the game. DOT also promises a further update on these guidelines as more research and development takes place in autonomous vehicles, and as deployment increases and we see any unexpected issues which might crop up over time.