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NHTSA Reviewing Safety Rules for Automated Cars

The rules could affect plans by Tesla, General Motors and others for the rollout of the first wave of autonomous vehicles.


The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Monday the agency is reviewing federal vehicle safety rules to determine if they could conflict with self-driving vehicle systems that Google and others want to put on the road.

The agency is looking at a list of rules that could affect the rollout of features such as Tesla Motors’ “autopilot” hands-free driving system or General Motors’ proposed “super cruise” system, NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind told reporters.

“We are trying to figure out if innovation will run up against regulations,” he said.

Rosekind said it is not clear where the lines are between federal and state regulation of autonomous driving technology. But he said the NHTSA inevitably will have a role in overseeing the safety of self-driving vehicles and what standards should be applied to the technology.

As an example, Rosekind noted the lack of standardization for the signals and alerts drivers get from robotic systems that are watching for hazards around a car or controlling its direction.

“The first time a self-driving car hits somebody, and someone gets hurt or is fatally injured, we’re going to get the phone call,” he said.

Another area of uncertainty, Rosekind said, is what will happen as automated cars and human-operated vehicles mix on the road for what could be 20 or 30 years.

“We have a lot of catch-up to do,” said Rosekind, who took over the agency in December.

Fully autonomous vehicles are still years from being ready for consumers to buy. But several automakers have said they intend to offer systems that will allow vehicles to navigate in traffic jams or in freeway driving even when the driver’s hands are off the steering wheel.

Rosekind, speaking with reporters ahead of an appearance at a conference on autonomous vehicle systems, also touched on topics ranging from malfunctioning Takata airbag inflators to the agency’s long-standing five-star safety rating system for new vehicles.

On Takata, he said NHTSA testing has found that 70 to 80 percent of its inflators that rupture, or explode, in laboratory testing come from vehicles from Florida. Takata and the NHTSA have said heat and humidity elevate the risk that inflators could explode.

Rosekind also said the NHTSA will propose by fall a “revolutionary change” to the safety rating system that could include incentives to encourage making automatic braking and other safety systems standard equipment.

(Reporting By Joe White; Editing by Christian Plumb)

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