The final rule is limited in scope to ADS-equipped vehicles that have seating configurations similar to non-ADS-equipped vehicles (i.e., forward-facing front seating positions) and to vehicles designed solely to carry property (i.e., “occupant-less vehicles”). The agency noted that further research is necessary to understand and address different safety risks posed by vehicles with unconventional seating arrangements (e.g., rear-facing seats or campfire seating). Dual-mode vehicles (ADS-equipped vehicles that also have a conventional driving mode) with the capability of stowing driving controls must certify compliance with all applicable FMVSSs in both modes.
The rule becomes effective 180 days after publication in the Federal Register. Publication of the final rule is expected soon. The notice of proposed rulemaking was originally published on March 30, 2020.
As part of its review and update of the 200-series FMVSS, NHTSA amended regulatory wording that has become obsolete and clarified the application of specific FMVSS to ADS-equipped vehicles. For example, the following definitions are modified/adopted to account for ADS-equipped vehicles: driver air bag, driver dummy, driver’s designated seating position, manually operated driving controls, outboard designated seating position, passenger seating position, row, and steering control system. The revised definitions do not assume that a vehicle will always have a driver’s seat, a steering wheel and accompanying steering column, or just one front outboard passenger seat position. At this time, NHTSA is not revising the definition of “driver” to include ADS-equipped vehicles; however, the agency may consider revising this term at a later date in a more comprehensive context. NHTSA also made changes to specific occupant protection standards that previously used traditional features such as the “driver’s seat”, “passenger seat”, and “steering controls” as spatial references. The final rule amends the terms to account for the interior designs of ADS-equipped vehicles, which may not be equipped with such controls.
Notably, the final rule implements significant changes to FMVSS No. 208 (Occupant Crash Protection). FMVSS 208 is modified to account for ADS-equipped vehicles that do not have manually operated steering controls or vehicles where the manually operated steering control can be stowed. To ensure protection of the individuals in the front seat of an ADS-equipped vehicle, NHTSA will treat any seat that does not have immediate access to manually operated driving controls as a “passenger seat” under the standard. As a result, all front outboard seats in an ADS-equipped vehicle are considered front outboard passenger seats and are required to meet FMVSS No. 208’s performance requirements that currently apply to the right front passenger seat. Additionally, to ensure safety, NHTSA is requiring that all front outboard passenger seats meet advanced air bag requirements. The benefit of advanced air bags is the protection of out-of-position occupants, particularly children, since vehicles that do not have a driver position may permit children to sit in the left front seat. A separate telltale is required for each outboard front passenger seat airbag so that passengers in the left or right seat know if their airbag is properly engaged.
Other changes include modifications to FMVSS 203 (Impact Protection for the Driver from the Steering Control System) and FMVSS 204 (Steering Control Rearward Displacement) to state that those standards do not apply to vehicles without steering controls. FMVSS 207 (Seating Systems) is modified to indicate that a driver’s seat is required only for vehicles with manually operated driving controls. These changes make clear that these FMVSS do not apply to ADS-equipped vehicles.
The final rule also clarifies the non-applicability of the 200-series FMVSS to “occupant-less vehicles”, which are designed to transport property, not people. Currently, the 200-series standards apply to passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, and school buses. All of those vehicles are by definition passenger-carrying except for trucks, which are designed to carry property. Therefore, under the current regulations, occupant-less vehicles would qualify as trucks that must comply with the 200-series FMVSS. However, unlike trucks designed to have a driver, occupant-less vehicles would not have designated seating positions or the other vehicle features that aid in transportation of seated or standing occupants. Under the new rule, such occupant-less ADS-equipped vehicles do not need to meet any of the 200-series FMVSS standards.
The Occupant Protection for Vehicles with ADS final rule establishes specific FMVSS requirements for ADS-equipped vehicles. NHTSA’s issuance of this final rule shows that despite innovations in design and technology, vehicles with ADS technology must continue to provide the same high levels of occupant protection that more traditionally designed vehicles provide. As new ADS technology is designed and produced, motor vehicle manufacturers will need to take steps to ensure their vehicles meet applicable FMVSS requirements.
Authored by Latane Montague, Joanne Rotondi, Lance Bultena, Susan McAuliffe, Hannah Graae, and Christina Bassick.