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How the AV industry could implement and enforce safety standards

Illustration of a seat belt with a yellow road markings
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

AV companies are wrestling with how to define and set safety standards, and at a recent symposium, a possible path emerged — even if the industry hasn't reached a consensus.

The big picture: NHTSA's voluntary safety self-assessment guidance applies to AV companies — but there are no mandatory safety standards and any future standards will have to define "safe enough" and also verify safety to earn public trust.

What they're saying: During the keynote presentations at the Autonomous Vehicle Symposium in Orlando in July, AV companies promoted their efforts on safety.

  • Aurora defined "safe" as "free from unreasonable risk."
  • The PEGASUS standardization project suggested drawing on fatality-rate statistics that were historically accepted for other technologies, like aviation or motorcycles.
  • Volvo defined "safe enough" as performance equal to an "attentive, skilled, experienced driver."

But, but, but: There was no consensus on how to define — let alone verify — safety. Verifying safety is just as difficult as defining it.

Where it stands: AV companies typically assert the safety of their tech, trust it will perform as intended in road tests, and verify safety claims by reporting crashes and disengagement of the autonomous driving software.

What's needed: A more comprehensive safety method would be for regulators and insurers to verify safety practices before the tech is tested in public environments.

  • Pre-test verification could be achieved by reviewing results of simulation and closed testing, and ensuring that safety tools such as HD maps, driver monitoring and remote operation are in place.
  • Companies could then verify safety again via reporting on public road deployment.

What we're watching: Pressure is mounting to determine safety standards from within and outside the industry.

  • Congress recently revisited the issue of self-driving regulation.
  • In order to meet production schedules in the early 2020s, AV companies will likely need to establish their minimum safety standards by the end of this year.

Ro Gupta is the CEO of Carmera, which makes HD maps for AVs.