On March 17, 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation's ("DOT") National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") issued a press release on its proposal to modernize certain Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards ("FMVSSs") to account for Automated Driving System-equipped vehicles ("ADS-equipped vehicles").

The proposed rule changes seek for the first time to clarify ambiguities in current occupant protection standards. They aim to provide regulatory certainty for ADS-equipped vehicle manufacturers while reducing unnecessary barriers and costs. The agency requests public comment on all aspects of the proposal. The deadline for comments is May 29, 2020.

The proposed changes are to 11 crashworthiness or occupant protection FMVSSs (200 Series), including FMVSS 201 (occupant protection in interior impact); FMVSS 203 (impact protection for the driver from the steering control system); and FMVSS 208 (occupant crash protection). NHTSA has preliminarily determined that no changes are needed for the other 200 Series FMVSSs. Changes to crash avoidance (100 Series) and post-crash survivability (300 Series) are not addressed.

Many of NHTSA's proposed changes are textual and definitional, requiring little research. For example, FMVSS 203 was modified to state that the standard does not apply to vehicles without steering controls. While important, these changes are low-hanging fruit. More effort will be required in the future to develop new standards for ADS-equipped vehicles before large scale deployment.

Notably, manufacturers of ADS-equipped vehicles still will need to seek exemptions from other FMVSSs even if these new rules were finalized. The process would, however, be more efficient given the reduced number of required exemptions.

With this move, NHTSA and DOT signal again their willingness to work with industry leaders to move forward on autonomous vehicle innovation despite Congressional gridlock on self-driving car legislation. The proposed rule changes provide an opportunity for manufacturers to inform NHTSA of their views.

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