In September 2017, NHTSA issued Automated Driving Systems 2.0, which set out new guidance for the safe development and deployment of Level 3 to Level 5 automated vehicles. The guidance suggested companies developing AVs could submit Voluntary Safety Self-Assessments (VSSAs) to communicate to the public how they were addressing safety. So far, three AV makers have filed VSSAs with NHTSA: Waymo, Ford and GM. What trends can be discerned in these three companies?
From the VSSAs, it’s clear that these three manufacturers are taking a very similar path to introducing self-driving vehicles in the USA. Each company is testing a Level 4 vehicle capable of self-driving within a prescribed Operational Design Domain – in each casea geo-fenced area of a city with a detailed 3D map. Each company intends to introduce a driverless ride-hailing or ‘robo-taxi’ service that will operate within these geo-fenced areas within a few years – or perhaps a few months in the case of Waymo in Phoenix, Arizona.
None of the companies state any immediate plans to implement Level 5 vehicles, nor are they positioning for AV sales to individuals. They see the near-term market as fleet vehicles, with close operational and maintenance oversight from the implementing company. These vehicles won’t use highways in the early days, and will stick to city streets with speeds under 40mph (65km/h). And it’s likely that snowy northern climates will see robo-taxi service only after a substantial amount of operational experience accumulates in Sun Belt cities.
So what is unique about each company’s approach? Waymo is the only one of the three to outfit an existing vehicle, a Chrysler Pacifica, to become a self-driving car. This approach has helped Waymo become the real-world self-driving test leader, with more than eight million roadway miles driven. Both Ford and GM are designing new vehicles from the ground up to build their fleets, resulting in a slower accumulation of road test miles. They anticipate commercial introduction of their purpose-built self-driving vehicles in 2021.
Ford’s unique approach includes the transportation not only of people, but also of goods. Ford has developed partnerships with several consumer companies, such as Domino’s, and sees a large market for on-demand goods delivery. While all three companies discuss safety operator training for its test vehicles, Ford presents its safety operator training extensively. Clearly these three companies understand the importance of protecting public safety and building consumer trust during their public vehicle test programs.
GM articulates several unique aspects of its self-driving vehicle program. It is dedicated to the development of an electric vehicle for self-driving fleets. It is also ready to build vehicles with no human controls and has petitioned NHTSA for an exemption to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to allow production of these vehicles. Another goal unique to GM is congestion reduction through the introduction of self-driving vehicles – although the GM assessment does not present a rationale of how that would happen. Lastly, the GM assessment highlights its road testing in the challenging San Francisco roadway environment.