By Daniel Healow
As in many areas where technology has disrupted the status quo, the availability of automotive safety systems has been generally dictated by the speed of its technological development. However, as these technologies are made available to the public, the law is often called upon to create minimum safety regulations on the back end.
As demonstrated at CES and the Detroit Auto Show in early January, automakers are rapidly increasing their research and development spending and highlighting their autonomous vehicle breakthroughs as they jockey for position in the race to bring a consumer product to market.
In some regions, the general public is already participating in early stage self-driving trips, but autonomous vehicles remain firmly in the product development testing phase across the industry. Some industry observers predict a market for these vehicles to emerge “in a noticeable way” by 2020, but less clear is when they will saturate the driving market. While it’s impossible to predict the exact timing, looking to past adoption of safety technologies may offer some evidence that could indicate an imminent mandate based on patterns of federal regulation.
Integrating safety equipment in public vehicles has become more difficult over time as cars are kept in use for more miles, and thus for more years. In 1930, the life expectancy of a new car was only 6.75 years. With such a quick turnover, safer designs and technologies could be introduced fairly quickly after initial development. As of 2014, the average age of vehicles on the road was 11.4 years and increasing. With over 252 million cars on American roadways, any new safety development would take a substantial amount of time to spread throughout the public fleet.
Seat Belts: First appearing in the United States in the early 1900s, lap belts were initially installed by doctors looking for safer ways to drive. In 1955, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) established a committee to study seat belts and develop appropriate standards. Washington’s own seat belt installation law cites the minimum requirements adopted by SAE in 1963, demonstrating the lasting impact early industry activity can have on vehicle regulation. In 1956, Volvo, Ford, and Chrysler each began offering seat belts as an option. Finally, in 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act, which required automakers to put seat belts in every car built.
Air Bags: Ford and GM began to offer air bags in the 1970s in an effort to improve crash safety. Unlike seat belts, early results were much more mixed. The early designs could deploy with such force that riders, especially children, were often seriously injured or killed from the air bag itself, independent from the crash impact. As designs improved, the technology was incorporated into more vehicles. Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 in an effort to require the installation of air bags, and on September 1, 1998 the regulation finally went into effect. By 1991, air bags were already a common feature in cars, but Congress allowed automakers an additional seven years to develop the manufacturing capacity to comply with the law.
Collision Avoidance Systems: Among the latest efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to improve vehicle safety is through the adoption of collision avoidance technology. NHTSA believes it would “realistically” be 2025 before a requirement could be passed to require manufacturers to include this technology in new vehicles. However, that has not stopped the agency from pursuing this goal through alternative means. The agency is embracing a voluntary agreement approach with automaker groups, already covering “99.6% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S.,” to install the technology in nearly all new cars by September 2022. Not only does this get the safety system in consumers’ vehicles faster than the agency expects regulation could be passed, it also increases industry buy-in and represents a new point of competition among automakers.
The regulatory history of these three technologies offers valuable guidance for today’s automakers in navigating the auto rulemaking environment. Similar to the three technologies above, early versions of semi-autonomous systems are starting out as options available only for luxury cars.
Examples of early options include Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Supercruise. SAE standards on autonomous vehicles are already being leveraged in the regulatory process, similar to adoption of seatbelt legislation.
Additionally, the federal government is providing voluntary guidance on central factors they intend to evaluate when creating autonomous vehicle safety standards. Taking a cue from the most recent collision avoidance system policy process, several automakers have already formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets as a means of engaging with NHTSA and state regulators to shape future policy.
With 39 companies already testing autonomous vehicles in California (as of September 2017), the good news is that competition within the auto industry will likely cause policy development to take a path more similar to the voluntary adoption of collision avoidance systems than the drawn out regulatory process leading to seat belts and air bags. Due to this competition, autonomous capabilities will increasingly become table stakes for new vehicles hitting the road.
Issues of cost, which have traditionally been a large barrier to integration of new safety technology, may be mitigated by transportation through ride-sharing services if they continue their explosive growth. Especially in this setting, early integration of autonomous safety systems and profitability align as ride-share companies look to remove the driver altogether.
Thus, competition among automakers and technology companies, combined with NHTSA’s trend towards cooperative rulemaking with industry groups, suggests “autonomous driving, standard” could soon be coming to a dealership near you.