The Biden Administration has issued a final rule intended to ensure safety of occupants in automated vehicles. This rule updates the current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to account for vehicles that may be equipped with automated driving systems (ADS) and do not have the traditional manual controls associated with a human driver.

Prior to this 155-page rule, occupant safety standards were written for common, traditional vehicle features including steering wheels, driver’s seat and various manual controls. The rule, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, clarifies what is required of manufacturers if and when they build vehicles without steering wheels or other traditional features.

The final rule seeks to assure that, despite their innovative designs, vehicles with ADS technology must continue to provide the same levels of occupant protection as current passenger vehicles.

“As the driver changes from a person to a machine in ADS-equipped vehicles, the need to keep the humans safe remains the same and must be integrated from the beginning,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, in announcing the rule. “With this rule, we ensure that manufacturers put safety first.”

A number of companies from Argo AI to General Motors to Waymo are testing driverless vehicles — some have traditional features and some do not. Other firms like Nuro are testing vehicles for transporting cargo, not passengers, that lack traditional driver features The new rule affects only passenger vehicles.

NHTSA said it knows of dozens of testing activities taking place in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia, many of which involve ADS-equipped vehicles that lack manually operated driving controls.

The agency said the rule should provide some certainty for manufacturers of vehicles with ADS that lack some traditional features and potentially reduce costs slightly by eliminating the need to install redundant traditional features like driver seats and steering wheels. At the same time, cost savings are likely to be partially offset, for example, by the equipment needed to make the left front seating position as safe as the right front seating position.

In response to some criticisms around how cars without these traditional features are not yet being made, the agency acknowledged that “uncertainty continues to exist around the development and potential deployment of ADS-equipped vehicles.” However, NHTSA said it believes it is “appropriate to finalize this action at this time in anticipation of emerging ADS vehicle designs that NHTSA has seen in prototype form.” These current designs considered by NHTSA generally involve forward-facing row seating and vehicles without manual driving controls.

NHTSA said it hopes the final rule “provides regulatory certainty that, despite their innovative designs, vehicles with ADS technology must continue to provide the same high levels of occupant protection that current passenger vehicles provide.”

NHTSA said it received 45 comments on the rule from vehicle and equipment manufacturers, ADS developers, industry associations, consumer advocates, advocates for persons with disabilities, states, insurance organizations, a university, an oil independence advocacy group, and members of the general public. Many commenters supported the proposal while others argued that the agency’s focus on this issue was premature.

The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) argued that NHTSA should not permit traditional manual controls to be removed from vehicles “until at least equivalent safety [of ADS-equipped vehicles] is proven.” The National Safety Council (NSC) called the rulemaking “premature” and “hasty” since most ADS vehicle designs that might benefit from the revised standards “are still on the drawing boards and unforeseen issues are certain to arise.”

Consumer Reports also “question[ed] the present focus of the agency on ‘removal of regulatory barriers’ rather than on developing and implementing standards for proven safety technologies.” However, Consumer Reports also stated that the narrow scope of the rule “is appropriate.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) expressed concern that the current process creates a path for introducing into the market ADS-controlled vehicles “without regulations that establish the ground rules for the safe behavior of ADS,” although the IIHS also stated that the “modifications proposed by NHTSA likely will be helpful to the entities developing automated driving systems (ADS) and the vehicles that will be controlled by ADS” and that the “changes answer some questions about how the occupants of ADS-controlled vehicles should be protected in the event of a crash.”

The rule goes into effect 180 days after it is published in the Federal Register.