U.S. regulators issued final rules on Thursday that eliminate the requirement for automated vehicle manufacturers to equip fully autonomous vehicles with manual driving controls in order to meet crash standards.
Because of safety standards written decades ago that assume people are in control, automakers and technology companies have faced significant challenges in deploying automated driving system (ADS) vehicles without human controls.
General Motors Co. and its self-driving technology unit Cruise petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last month for permission to build and deploy a self-driving vehicle without human controls such as steering wheels or brake pedals.
The rules revise regulations that assume vehicles “will always have a driver’s seat, a steering wheel and accompanying steering column, or just one front outboard passenger seating position,” according to the NHTSA.
“Manually operated driving controls are logically unnecessary for vehicles designed to be solely operated by an ADS,” the agency stated.
The new rules, proposed in March 2020, emphasize that automated vehicles must provide the same levels of occupant protection as human-driven vehicles.
“As the driver transitions from a human to a machine in ADS-equipped vehicles, the need to keep humans safe remains constant and must be integrated from the start,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Steven Cliff.
The NHTSA rule states that children should not occupy what is traditionally known as the “driver’s” position because it was not designed to protect children in a crash, but if a child is in that seat, the car will not be required to stop immediately.
According to NHTSA, existing regulations do not currently prohibit the deployment of automated vehicles as long as they have manual driving controls, and manufacturers may still need to petition NHTSA for an exemption to sell their ADS-equipped vehicles as it considers changing other safety standards.