Time to Put the Priority on Autonomous Vehicle Safety

Fall 2021

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
Time to Put the Priority on Autonomous Vehicle Safety


Autonomous Vehicle The need for strengthened safety standards for autonomous vehicles is back in the spotlight. The heightened attention was sparked by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation of Tesla in response to concerns over its autopilot technology. Specifically, NHTSA is investigating almost a dozen “vehicle crashes with in-road or roadside first responders.” This investigation opens the door to further conversations around the safety of Tesla’s AutoPilot system and automated driving systems in general.

NSPE has been a part of this safety conversation since the beginning by advocating for the creation of safety standards for autonomous vehicles, and we don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Ever since the Department of Transportation released its first guidance on autonomous vehicles in 2016, NSPE has advocated for the involvement of a professional engineer in the development and deployment of AVs. NSPE’s position on the issue is that a PE must be involved in the development and deployment of automated vehicles because of this emerging technology’s impact on the public health, safety, and welfare.

One of NSPE’s main contributions to the discussion on AV safety has been the creation of the Autonomous Vehicle Policy Guide. The guide was published in March 2018 with the goal of providing public policy decision-makers, regulators, manufacturers, and others with guidelines to measure the safety readiness of autonomous vehicles under consideration for deployment.

In recent years, NSPE has taken numerous actions and presented its position to government agencies and officials. We’ve written to the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to advocate for the inclusion of PEs in the development and deployment of AVs. The most recent instance was our comments to NHTSA about a federal AV safety framework. We’ve also commented on DOT’s most recent autonomous vehicle guidance, “Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies: Automated Vehicles 4.0.” As part of our recommendations to both NHTSA and DOT, we stressed the need for some level of oversight or regulation of AV innovation because without it, the public is put at risk. We don’t recommend this to stifle innovation, but to ensure innovation is carried out responsibly. By prioritizing safety, AV developers would reduce unintended consequences stemming from innovation. When safety is set aside, some great innovations may need reconsideration if they put the public in harm’s way. To keep safety at the forefront, professional engineers need to participate in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

NSPE also communicated to these federal agencies that a safety framework should include a third-party verification process, which would rely on a risk assessment of the automated driving system performed by a professional engineer. The benefit of a third-party verification system involving a PE is that the public can be sure that a developer’s decisions are being made with the utmost consideration for their health, safety, and welfare, rather than out of loyalty to the manufacturer or owner of the AV technology. By suggesting this guide rail of third-party verification, we ensure responsible innovation in autonomous vehicle technology.

Congress, too, has heard NSPE’s message. During the 116th Congress, NSPE commented on AV legislation in the draft stages, in an effort to shape the bill into something the Society could support. In a multiround feedback process, the drafted sections addressed multiple topics of interest to NSPE. In the feedback, NSPE recommended that a PE be a member of an advisory committee created by the drafted legislation, such that we can guarantee considerations for public safety are being made, and emphasized key points of NSPE’s AV Policy Guide relating to a third-party verification system. Congress’s interest in AVs has continued this year with a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on emerging vehicle technologies, in which AV technology took center stage. Legislators also introduced the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3711), which aims to create federal safety standards for automated vehicles.

Hopefully, as NHTSA’s investigation of Tesla progresses, we will see the conversation around automated vehicle safety continue and evolve into the eventual creation of federal safety standards. You can count on NSPE to represent the voice of the professional engineer and advocate for the inclusion of PEs in the development and deployment of AVs.

Margaret Edwards is NSPE’s policy and advocacy associate.