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In a move that may accelerate the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the United States, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") has announced a consultation to consider the merits of removing what it calls "unnecessary" barriers to autonomous vehicle testing, including current safety standards that require a steering wheel as well as brake and gas pedals.

The NHTSA, the federal agency responsible for road safety in the US, is looking to identify "any unnecessary regulatory barriers" to the testing of automated motor vehicles and in particular those vehicles "that are not equipped with controls for a human driver; e.g., steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedal."  The federal motor vehicle safety standards now in place are based on the presence of a human driver seated behind a steering wheel, and have been considered by many to be an impediment to the development of innovative automated vehicle designs and technologies that don't require a human driver to intervene or otherwise take back the vehicle's control.  The NHTSA is also seeking comments on the research that would be required to support the removal of these requirements.  The consultation would inform subsequent steps in the US regulatory process to amend current federal standards "in order to safely lay a path for innovative automated vehicle designs and technology." 

The consultation was announced as part of the US Department of Transportation's "Significant Rulemaking Report (October 2017)," which periodically updates pending and prospective transport safety regulations, and is accessible here.  The NHTSA's action follows its September 2017 guidance on autonomous vehicles (available here) to assist industry, regulators and safety and mobility advocates in crafting regulatory and non-regulatory approaches for the safe development, testing and deployment of automated vehicle technology.  In addition, US legislative efforts, on which we previously reported, remain underway and would provide uniform standards for the nationwide introduction of autonomous vehicles.

The consultation period will remain open through 31 January 2018, though there is no timetable for the NHTSA to issue proposed, let alone final, regulations.

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