Bringing order to chaos

Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium” aims to help safe introduction of autonomous vehicles.

Almost all the world’s leading automakers, along with a host of non-automotive players, are in a race to bring fully autonomous vehicles to market. Not the least of the many challenges they face is the absence of any existing standards to both guide and constrain that development.

In many ways, it is a “wild west” scenario!

Recently, however, three rival automakers — Ford, General Motors and Toyota — joined forces with the automotive engineering organization SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers), to “safely advance testing, precompetitive development and deployment of SAE Level 4 and 5 automated vehicles.”

Specifically, they established an organization called the Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium (AVSC), whose stated goal is to “provide a safety framework around which autonomous technology can responsibly evolve in advance of broad deployment, ultimately helping to inform and accelerate the development of industry standards for autonomous vehicles (AVs) and harmonize with efforts of other consortia and standards bodies.”

Stated more simply, it is to bring some order to the chaos!

It’s a role that has effectively been abdicated by the regulatory agencies charged with that responsibility. Last year, American lawmakers made an attempt to establish a framework for introducing AVs safely to that country’s roadways. But that process bogged down in political wrangling and was effectively abandoned, leaving individual states to enact a hodgepodge of their own regulations for on-road use.

As a result, there is no U.S. federal (or corresponding Canadian) safety standard authorizing production, sale and operation of vehicles without human controls.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is responsible for setting such safety standards, has issued a set of loose, voluntary guidelines for development and testing of AVs, but nothing more. And those guidelines expressly excuse automakers and other entities from any mandatory Safety Self-Assessment. “There is no enforceable requirement to compel entities to provide a voluntary submission before testing or deployment,” they state.

But neither are there any exemptions to take into account the obvious differences inherent in level 4 and Level 5 AVs. For now, at least, even fully-autonomous vehicles must conform to the same safety regulations as normal vehicles — including having steering wheels and pedals.

It’s a modern-day version of Catch 22!

Many may see the need for those redundant technologies as a good thing, but eventually some provision must be made for the reality that full autonomy will be possible. To that end, “industry collaboration, cohesion, and flexibility to merge new ideas with proven safety processes are critical,” says Edward Straub, director of automation for SAE and executive director of the new consortium. “This is why we are forming the AVSC.”

Other automakers and technology companies will be welcome to join the consortium, provided they have experience testing fully autonomous cars, Straub says.

While the AVSC may play a role in pressuring for legislation, its primary focus is said to be on sharing best practices and experiences. In the absence of hard rules, it simply makes sense for automakers to work together to develop common standards, which has been the SAE’s role for decades.

Examples of that organization’s past success in such lofty undertakings include the now-universal practices dealing with mobile air-conditioning design, materials and service procedures. It’s easy to forget that, less than a generation ago, routine venting of ozone-depleting CFC refrigerants into the atmosphere was standard operating procedure. The SAE played a major role in bringing that whole complex scenario under control.

The first order of business for the newly-formed AVSC will be to create a roadmap of priorities for those involved in developing, manufacturing, and integrating AV technologies, with a specific focus on data sharing, vehicle interaction with other road users, and safe testing guidelines.

Ultimately, says Randy Visintainer, chief technology officer for Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, “Our goal with the consortium is to work with industry and government partners to expedite development of standards that can lead to rule making.”

While it may be a secondary purpose, the organization will also play a role in helping the public better understand autonomous vehicles and the technologies they employ. A recent Reuters survey revealed that two-thirds of Americans have no interest in owning a self-driving car and many simply don’t trust them. Half the survey respondents felt that self-driving cars would be less safe than a conventional vehicle with a human behind the wheel.

The AVSC was scheduled to share more details of its vision and progress at SAE International’s World Congress Experience in Detroit, in April.

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

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