What the new NHTSA guidelines mean for self-driving cars


Image Credits: TechCrunch

In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidelines for the testing and deployment of autonomous [PDF] vehicles. The important thing to remember for now is that these are merely guidelines and not rules. Complying with them is voluntary on the part of automotive and hardware manufacturers, as well as app developers.

“Firms can make the decision to not comply and be within their rights to do so,” said David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, who was also an NHTSA administrator between 2010 and 2014. “This is evidence of the agency’s willingness to find tools that move more quickly than traditional rule-making, which can take four to eight years.”

The document had a lot of ground to cover.

“Not everybody is a well-capitalized automotive manufacturer with risk assessment built in, and not every company is a sophisticated ride-sharing company or mass innovator and disruptor,” Strickland said. “You have to build a regulatory structure that applies to four engineers in a garage. NHTSA guidance has to take into account all of that.”

Autonomous development guidelines

Katie Thompson, who served as general counsel for the agency from 2013 to May of this year, told me that the guidelines signal how the Department of Transportation wants to work with developing tech.

“There’s an admonition to people developing tech to be mindful of people who will use it — designed to take that into account. If it’s unsafe, [NHTSA] will determine it’s a failure and ask you to recall it.”

Or as President Barack Obama said in an op-ed, “Make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road.”

Any company developing autonomous vehicles is being asked to sign a 15-point safety checklist to pre-certify their vehicles, similar to the FAA’s system for airplanes. The NHTSA list (page 15 of the guidelines, for those following along at home) includes everything from privacy and system safety to post-crash behavior and object and event detection and response. Even ethical considerations are on the list. Each item can be marked as meeting the guidance, not meeting it, or not applicable.

The agency acknowledges that pre-certification does not prevent humans from doing dumb things (and likely uploading it to YouTube), which Thomson alluded to in our interview. The guidelines do recommend that manufacturers provide consumer education and training on how to use the new technologies “properly, efficiently, and in the safest manner possible.”

Data collection and security

NHTSA also asks that black-box-type data be “stored, maintained, and readily available for retrieval by the entity itself and by NHTSA” for the purpose of reconstructing crashes. The agency wants this data to be available regardless of whether there was a crash or an event was successfully avoided.

This data, and all other data collected by the vehicles, needs to be anonymized, according to NHTSA. “Generally, data shared with third parties should be de-identified (i.e. stripped of elements that make the data directly or reasonably linkable to a specific HAV [highly autonomous vehicle] owner or user).”

The treatment of data is the most significant piece of the guidelines, in Thomson’s opinion. “NHTSA is dead-on accurate,” she said. “This is borrowed from the FAA and their safety management systems. All the information is de-identified, but it enables the agency to proactively identify trends and risks in the system before something happens.”

But Thomson was doubtful that private automotive companies will fully comply while these guidelines are voluntary. She wondered if proprietary and security issues would trump the government’s request for data.

Strickland said NHTSA is working on another document to address data privacy and cyber security beyond what’s set out in these guidelines. “Self-driving vehicles collect personally identifiable information, geographic information, and now biometric information, and that must be protected,” he said.

NHTSA does request that cybersecurity data be shared with the agency and with other manufacturers. “Each industry member should not have to experience the same cyber vulnerabilities in order to learn from them,” the agency wrote.

Strickland agrees. “The manufacturers are as protective as they can be, but how well do you foreclose an attack? Or rectify when it’s discovered?”

Regulatory issues

NHTSA wants very badly to avoid the “patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations” that the states have already started stitching together. Instead, “DOT strongly encourages states to allow DOT alone to regulate” autonomous vehicles and their technologies. Consumer Watchdog, among others, issued a statement noting its concerns that California’s strong regulations in this arena could be pre-empted.

Avoiding a patchwork without undoing states’ regulatory innovations was Strickland’s biggest concern as well, but he’s pleased with how the guidelines dealt with the issue. “I’m happy that they listened to advisers,” he said.

“The challenge for NHTSA is, will they be able to process all of this?” Thomson said. The pre-certification process alone is a new load of paperwork for the agency to keep up with, and the technology is moving fast.

But the process of creating the guidelines and creating a fluid framework for autonomous vehicle safety is worth the trouble, Strickland says. “The promise of the technology is transformational,” he said. “I can’t think of an innovation that’s bigger than this. If we can reduce the number of people that lost their lives in 2015 [more than 35,000], it’s beyond the value of the investment.”

More TechCrunch

Ahead of the AI safety summit kicking off in Seoul, South Korea later this week, its co-host the United Kingdom is expanding its own efforts in the field. The AI…

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

10 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities