NHTSA Tackles Guidelines for Autonomous Vehicles Amid Public Safety and Privacy Concerns

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it expects to issue industry guidelines on the deployment of autonomous vehicles later this summer. But the recent death of an autonomous vehicle operator coupled with public concerns about safety and privacy have muddied the waters on just what those guidelines will look like.

Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said that he would like the guidelines for autonomous cars to establish parameters for federal and state officials to work together to determine when the software in self-driving cars might reach the level where a licensed driver would not be required.

Sec. Foxx thinks connected cars could have significant safety benefits provided the industry can ensure that cars effectively communicate with each other as well as with connected infrastructure.

Many observers maintain that the trucking industry will undergo a dramatic transformation in the coming decades on account of autonomous vehicle technology. Specifically, as trucking companies grow more attracted to the cost-savings these technologies can generate, regulations surrounding trucking -- such as hours-of-service rules --  could evolve as well, with serious implications for highway-based businesses such as truckstops.

Regulators are grappling with autonomous vehicle deployment guidance at a time when U.S. traffic deaths are on the rise. U.S. traffic deaths spiked nearly 8 percent in 2015 after years of declines, according to preliminary data released by NTHSA July 1.

About 35,200 people died in 2015, up 7.7 percent from the 32,675 fatalities reported in 2014. Nine out of 10 U.S. regions saw an increase in traffic deaths last year.

NHTSA said the numbers underscored the need for autonomous vehicles to protect Americans, most notably pedestrians and bikers. The agency said autonomous vehicles will eliminate human error while driving and help drivers avoid or mitigate 70 percent to 80 percent of vehicle crashes involving unimpaired drivers.

The announcement was made, however, as the agency also is investigating the first American death involving a self-driving car. In May, 40-year-old Joshua D. Brown was killed in Willison, Fla., when his car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a bright sky. The car failed to automatically activate the brakes. NTHSA is investigating the Tesla Model S vehicle’s Autopilot system. 

At the same time, a number of public interest groups are arguing that autonomous and connected cars threaten consumer privacy. Several have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prohibit automakers from implementing car connectivity until the agency establishes cybersecurity and privacy rules. Their concern is that the information and data that connected vehicles will generate could be misused for commercial purposes (such as targeted advertising) without the vehicle owner's consent.

NHTSA earlier this year submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a draft notice of proposed regulations to require vehicle-to-vehicle equipment. The agency said it plans to work closely with industry groups on privacy and security concerns as automated cars are deployed in the United States.


Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman's photo

Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman

Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman develops and executes communications strategies to advance NATSO’s public relations and advocacy goals. Tiffany also develops and oversees partnerships related to the NATSO Foundation’s public outreach initiatives. Tiffany lives in the D.C. metro area with her husband and their two sons.More
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