Autonomous vehicles are straight out of science fiction and have long been unrealistic. However, with current automotive developments, it is now likely for self-driving cars to become commonplace in the near future. While the work of Tesla and Google in pioneering this technology is discussed often in the news, major automotive brands, such as Ford, Mercedes, and BMW, will soon release automobiles classified either as autonomous or semi-autonomous, as they will make use of some of the features found on self-driving cars. Business Insider projects that 10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020.
The DOT automated vehicle policy acknowledges this likely possibility, and it looks to create the framework by which the benefits of autonomous vehicles can be attained. Specifically, highly automated vehicles (HAVs) can reduce the prevalence of accidents, as 94 percent of accidents result from human choice or error. In addition, these HAVs could be connected to a larger system of data exchange, which could further enhance their usage and allow cities to reconsider how public transit is provided.
There are different “levels of automation” that can be incorporated into a vehicle. For the purposes of the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, the DOT adopts the SAE International definitions for different automation levels. These are explained in the document:
- At SAE Level 0, the human driver does everything;
- At SAE Level 1, an automated system on the vehicle can sometimes assist the human driver conduct some parts of the driving task;
- At SAE Level 2, an automated system on the vehicle can actually conduct some parts of the driving task, while the human continues to monitor the driving environment and performs the rest of the driving task;
- At SAE Level 3, an automated system can both actually conduct some parts of the driving task and monitor the driving environment in some instances, but the human driver must be ready to take back control when the automated system requests;
- At SAE Level 4, an automated system can conduct the driving task and monitor the driving environment, and the human need not take back control, but the automated system can operate only in certain environments and under certain conditions; and
- At SAE Level 5, the automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them.
The DOT further draws the distinction between Levels 0-2 and 3-5, with the latter describing vehicles that “are responsible for monitoring the driving environment.” The highly automated vehicles (HAVs) mentioned in the document are the equivalent of SAE Levels 3-5.
In general, the DOT establishes performance guidance for HAVs, ensuring that they meet all current applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards. This guidance was written with input from many different knowledgeable organizations so it can be applicable to almost every possible HAV that could be designed. Since this document was written so early on in the development of autonomous vehicles, it deals heavily with risk, identifying many potential considerations, including: data recording and sharing, privacy, system safety, vehicle cybersecurity, human-machine interface, crashworthiness, consumer education and training, post-crash vehicle behavior, federal, state, and local laws, and ethical considerations.
Furthermore, the policy seeks to establish a shared standard framework for HAVs that would be used consistently throughout the country, so that there would be no issues in terms of vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and other responsibilities as the cars traveled between state lines. While the guidelines are not mandatory, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may later adopt them as requirements.
To view the document, please refer to U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Automated Vehicles Policy webpage.