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Alerts and Updates

NHTSA Paves the Way for Further Autonomous Vehicle Research on Public Roads

January 11, 2021

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This on-road experience will allow domestic developers to learn which approaches and combinations of hardware and software offer the greatest levels of reliability and safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued an interim final rule and request for comment on December 31, 2020, which establishes a program for manufacturers of domestically produced vehicles and equipment to become exempted from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for research, investigation, demonstrations or training involving nonconforming vehicles. This program will allow domestic manufacturers of “innovative and potentially life-saving advanced technologies, such as automated driving systems” the opportunity to gain practical, real-world experience by testing their vehicles on roads, rather than only testing them in laboratory and test-track settings.

Exemption from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for similar purposes has existed for nearly three decades for imported vehicles and equipment. See 49 CFR § 591. This program allows foreign automated driving system developers to gain practical experience by testing their vehicles on roads in the United States after laboratory and track testing. See 49 U.S.C. § 30114. According to NHTSA, establishing a similar rule for domestically produced vehicles allows domestic developers to “realize the full promise” of automated driving systems by providing vital “opportunities to gain practical, on-road experience to validate the development and findings from laboratory and track testing.” This on-road experience will allow domestic developers to learn which approaches and combinations of hardware and software offer the greatest levels of reliability and safety. The NHTSA is implementing the program at this time to counteract the negative effects of the COVID-19 public health emergency on domestic automotive developers, manufacturers and suppliers.

The new domestic program mirrors 49 CFR § 591, which applies to imported vehicles and equipment, by allowing original manufacturers to obtain exemptions under part 589 to “introduce in interstate commerce non-conforming domestically produced vehicles and equipment for research or demonstration,” without needing to request and receive NHTSA’s approval. Entities other than original manufacturers will also be able to obtain demonstration or research exemptions for domestically produced nonconforming vehicles and equipment. However, these entities must request and receive NHTSA’s approval through a written request to NHTSA. The written request must contain a description of the intended use for the nonconforming vehicle or equipment, and may need to include the specific standards with which the vehicle or equipment does not comply and steps that will be taken to mitigate risks associated with those noncompliances. This program does not apply to manufacturers who already meet existing statutory requirements to test or evaluate domestically produced vehicles, including those under 49 U.S.C. § 30112(b)(10).

Although the program is not limited to vehicles equipped with automated driving systems, NHTSA expects that most of the benefit derived from the program will come from vehicle research on automated driving systems and demonstration projects. This interim final rule is NHTSA’s latest effort to pave the way for autonomous vehicles to come to fruition, and the exemption program established under the rule is a boon to domestic manufacturers who have been working on automated driving systems. The program will improve their technology even further by expanding testing of these systems from laboratory and test-track settings to public roads.

For More Information

If you have any questions about this Alert, please contact Alyson Walker Lotman, Theresa A. Langschultz, any of the attorneys in our Transportation, Automotive and Logistics Industry Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are in regular contact.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.