Panelists at the April 6, 2019 roundtable, "What do autonomous vehicles mean for regulation?" at the WCX'19 conference in Detroit. (SAE)

WCX 2019: Regulators grapple with autonomous challenges

The long reach of autonomous vehicles clearly extends to the regulatory environment, which will undergo changes that are as significant as those seen in the discipline of engineering those vehicles. Some regulations may evolve fairly quickly, but they must be based on a flexible foundation that can adapt so this rapidly-evolving field can take unplanned paths.

Vehicle designs have to meet regulatory requirements, but that’s difficult in a world where legislation varies from region to region—if regulations exist at all—said panelists at the SAE WCX‘19 conference in Detroit. Uncertainties about the types of driverless cars are matched by ambiguities in the regulatory world.

Setting rules too early

“There are many unknowns,” said Kelly Nantel of the National Safety Council. “If we set too many regulations now, we may box ourselves in. This is a different environment, there’s much more that we need to understand.”

Speakers from Aptiv, Uber and Ford mentioned the difficulty of dealing with a diversity of existing regulations. Cities, states and nations each have their own rules, making it difficult to create technologies that can be deployed in more than one region.

“In Boston alone, we deal with four different government agencies,” said Eryk Nice of Aptiv. “The more we can harmonize some of these requirements, the faster we can develop products.”

Safety will be the primary goal of regulations for autonomous vehicles. Current conventional-vehicle regulations ensure that vehicles are as safe as possible when humans are doing the driving, but many factors change when drivers don’t make decisions. During the panel, regulators and designers alike said that autonomous vehicles are expected to trim the number of road fatalities. But crafting regulations to help ensure—rather than potentially hinder—this result will entail considerable effort and collaboration.

“It will require a huge body of work to comprehensively address all the issues,” said Tim Johnson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA). “We need to focus on how we’ll test in a really robust way to make sure products are safe. There is a pretty robust safety environment in place now, but we need to develop a heck of a lot more techniques.”

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