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Safety groups urge improved safety standards for autonomous cars

Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requested public comments on proposed regulatory changes to the occupant protection rules for self-driving vehicles. Anyone can comment on the rule, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Highway Loss Data Institute recently submitted theirs based on years of research.

How should the occupants of autonomous vehicles be protected in the future? Currently, there are different crash survivability rules for the driver's seat, the front passenger seat and the rear seat.

This has resulted in different standards for each of those locations. In 2019, the IIHS found that rear seat passengers have been losing out in terms of safety, with vehicle safety tech for the rear passengers failing to keep pace with advancements for front seat passengers.

The rear seat isn't inherently safer than the front seat. That is important to understand, because when vehicles become fully autonomous to the point where there are no driver controls, people may choose to sit in whichever seat they like. There will no longer be any advantage, ride-wise, to sitting in the driver's seat or front passenger seat.

Moreover, just this month the nonprofit safety group released research indicating that the promise of self-driving vehicles could be illusory unless manufacturers "teach" the vehicles to prioritize safety over convenience and speed.

Regulators should have a plan from the beginning

There is an opportunity to begin from a safer stance, the IIHS points out. For example, regulators could require manufacturers to keep the vehicle from starting if the airbag is malfunctioning or if a passenger is not belted in. They could insist that lap and shoulder belts be installed in all middle seats, too.

Likewise, regulators could insist that all of the passenger seats adhere to the same safety standards that are currently required for the front seats.

Ultimately, the safety groups argue that regulators should establish rules for how autonomous vehicles should operate before removing any hurdles to their production. Without these rules of the road, self-driving cars could be programmed to choose convenience or speed over safety. The rules are needed from the beginning of their production.

If you are interested in reading the proposed rules or commenting publicly, go to Docket ID: NHTSA-2020-0014 on regulations.gov.

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