Moving Forward on an NSPE Priority: Autonomous Vehicle Safety

March/April 2016

Communities: Government
Moving Forward on an NSPE Priority: Autonomous Vehicle Safety

Autonomous car

The federal government and state of California are pushing ahead with autonomous vehicle initiatives. NSPE is also taking action, spotlighting the importance of PEs in protecting the public.

California—charged with creating the first state regulations for the deployment of autonomous vehicles—released draft regulations for public comment last December. They include the stipulation for a licensed driver in the vehicle who can take over operation when needed. The Department of Motor Vehicles believes that manufacturers need to conduct more testing before deploying vehicles that can operate completely independently; subsequent regulations will address this.

The draft regulations would also require that manufacturers certify compliance with autonomous vehicle safety and performance requirements, including functional safety and “behavioral competency” (the way the vehicle performs when dealing with external hazards). In addition, third-party testing must verify the vehicle’s ability to perform typical driving maneuvers.

In December, NSPE and the California Society of Professional Engineers submitted a joint letter to the DMV pointing out the significant impact development of autonomous vehicles and their associated systems will have on the US transportation system. The letter urges the DMV, in its development of regulations, to recognize and incorporate the professional engineer’s role in protecting the public health, safety, and welfare. Following consultations among NSPE, CSPE, and the California DMV, NSPE has taken an active role in the California proceedings.

To conduct a peer review of the behavioral competencies included in the draft regulations, the DMV turned to the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) program.

On January 19, NSPE member Sam Wilson, P.E., F.NSPE, and Executive Director Mark Golden participated in a Washington, DC, workshop to provide feedback on the draft competencies, and followed up with written comments.

And on February 2, Golden testified at a Los Angeles workshop to gather input from industry, consumer and public interest groups, academia, and the public on the proposed California regulations.

Golden’s comments, and a more detailed written response from NSPE President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE, indicated that NSPE is generally supportive of the proposed requirement for a licensed driver. “This is an important first step, not a final one,” noted Austin. “California’s proposed, measured approach will speed, not deter, the development and deployment of this important technology by creating the opportunity to gain practical experience testing and proving autonomous vehicle capabilities in the real world.”

NSPE believes the development of autonomous vehicles and associated systems will have a profound impact on the public health, safety, and welfare. However, addressing such concerns and “rapid innovation, free of unproductive regulatory cost and delay” are not mutually exclusive, Austin added.

The Society stresses that, given the multiple engineering disciplines involved, licensed professional engineers—who bear a statutory obligation to place public health, safety, and welfare paramount—must play a key role in the design, development, testing, and certification of autonomous vehicles and AV systems.

NSPE asserts that vehicle certification must include safety certifications by the manufacturer and independent third-party testing by competent authorities. The Society emphasizes that licensed PEs must be involved in both processes.

NSPE is committed to ensuring that PEs—with their obligation to place public health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations; their accountability to professional standards of care; and their verified technical competence—are available and equipped to meet the needs of both testing regimes.

Nationally, President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal includes a 10-year, almost $4 billion investment for pilot programs to test connected vehicle systems and help ensure a common multistate framework for connected and autonomous vehicles. NSPE has called for a more open, comprehensive, and coordinated effort involving industry, state and federal governments, and the public to ensure that the implications for public health, safety, and welfare are well  understood and addressed before the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, in announcing the funding proposal, pledged a federal commitment to work with industry and other stakeholders to develop best-practice guidance on the safe deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles and develop a model state policy that offers a path to a consistent national policy—both within six months.

In his remarks, Foxx noted automated vehicles’ potential to increase efficiency and save lives and stressed that the federal government is “bullish” on them.

Read NSPE’s written submissions to PATH and the California DMV and NSPE’s cover feature on autonomous vehicles and the Society’s work.