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Auto part suppliers push Congress to allow Tier 1 testing of AV components

Thursday, May 18, 2017 - 07:00
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Tier one auto parts suppliers are pushing Congress to allow them to test automated vehicles (AVs) like OEMs are allowed to do. The OEMs can apply to the Department of Transportation to test AVs under an exemption approved as part of the FAST Act.

President Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) in December 2015. That law allows certain vehicle manufacturers (those who, prior to enactment of the FAST Act, had manufactured and distributed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)-compliant vehicles and have registered with NHTSA) to introduce non-FMVSS-compliant motor vehicles into interstate commerce “solely for purposes of testing or evaluation” so long as they “agree not to sell or offer for sale the motor vehicle at the conclusion of the testing or evaluation….” The exemption allows an auto manufacturer to test up to 2,500 vehicles a year.

Parts suppliers such as Continental AG are not eligible to apply for an exemption, and cannot test an AV it builds. That limits the testing of AV components. "As a supplier, we need the ability to test the system," says Jeff Klei, President, North America Automotive Divisions, Continental AG. "It can't be just the OEMs."

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Of course, the bigger objective is for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to change FMVSS so that autos don't need steering wheels, for example, which AVs won't have. But the reforming of FMVSS to accommodate AVs will take a long time.

Expanding the FAST Act exemption is a short-term solution and would allow OEMs and suppliers to test more cars, and perhaps get approval to do so more quickly. Currently, for simple exemption petitions NHTSA tries to grant or deny the petition within six months. For more complex petitions there is a 12-month timetable.

"I support raising the standard exemption cap as a temporary measure as NHTSA amends the existing safety standards," says Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI).

"I understand the expansion of the exemption must be handled very carefully and cautiously," adds Kay Stepper, Vice President for Automated Driving and Driver Assistance Systems, Chassis Systems Control, Robert Bosch LLC. "We are ready to engage actively with Congress on this point."

Any expansion of the FAST Act exemption will probably be part of a broader AV-promotion bill. For example, Sen. Gary Peters, (D-MI) is partnering with Sen. John Thune, (R-SD) to launch “a joint effort to explore legislation that clears hurdles and advances innovation in self-driving vehicle technology.” Another way forward would be to attach FAST Act modifications to the NHTSA's fiscal 2018 appropriations bill.

The pressure from the auto industry to widen the FAST Act exemption "lane" underlines the shortcomings in NHTSA policy more broadly. The Federal Automated Vehicles Policy the agency published last fall was fine to a point, but hasn't done anything to prevent states and localities from passing AV restrictions which run counter to the recommendations in the policy, which was just advisory. It has no legal standing.

Beyond its failure to rein in states, the policy endorses the SAE International’s standard J3016: Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems. That voluntary standard describes the five levels of autonomous vehicles. While that was viewed as helpful, and infusing some conformity into the language of AVs, that taxonomy is confusing to consumers who do not have the vaguest idea of the difference between a level 1 and level 5 AV.

While pressure from various auto sectors will undoubtedly result in legislation to change some FAST Act exemption provisions, the changes won't be rubberstamped because some House and Senate members retain a residue of exasperation over some recent industry mishaps.

"Takata and Volkswagen scandals raise serious questions about how much we can trust industry to do the right thing on safety," says Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), top Democrat on the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee. 


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