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Transportation institute awarded federal contract to study alternative vehicle designs and how they affect current safety standards

November 9, 2017

Vehicles driving on the Virginia Smart Road.

Vehicles driving on the Virginia Smart Road.
Vehicles drive on the Smart Road at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has received a contract from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to lead a multidisciplinary project that develops technical translations to existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and related testing procedure approaches for emerging innovative and non-traditional vehicle designs.

“Driver-related factors such as impairment and distraction are present in over 90 percent of crashes, so automated driving systems have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives per year,” said Tom Dingus, director of the transportation institute. “Our entire team realizes the importance of building collaboration between leaders in industry, government, and academia to help ensure automated driving systems are deployed safely and efficiently.”

The project will be conducted by a core team comprising Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards experts; industry team members General Motors and Nissan; testing facilities Dynamic Research, Inc., and MGA Research Corporation; and research institutions Booz Allen Hamilton and the Southwest Research Institute in concert with stakeholder and peer review groups.

Myra Blanco, director of the Center for Public Policy, Partnerships, and Outreach, will lead the team.

“It is an honor and a privilege to assist with this key step to ensure safety and eliminate barriers to safely deploying automated driving systems in the United States. We are tasked with developing technical translation and candidate test procedure approaches to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. This is a cornerstone for automated driving systems safety research and is instrumental for vehicle deployment,” said Blanco. “Our goal is to conduct research that provides data-driven options for consideration regarding the testing of innovative new vehicle designs — for instance, those with novel seating configurations.”

With this goal in mind, the team will examine the current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, particularly crashworthiness, crash avoidance, and low-speed standards. Many of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards were created with the underlying assumption that vehicles would include standard equipment like steering wheels, brake pedals, and driver’s seats.

However, auto manufacturers are beginning to envision new and innovative vehicle designs tailored for higher levels of automated driving systems. According to many of these concepts, vehicles may not necessarily need physical steering wheels or brake pedals to operate safely. Instead, the interior of such a vehicle could resemble a living room—equipped, for instance, with entertainment screens and seats that may face each other.

The project will aim to develop alternative approaches to manufacturers to certify the vehicles and for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to verify these designs. 

Congress is considering legislation to address these issues. In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support called the “Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act,” or the SELF-DRIVE Act. It is the first major U.S. legislation to outline regulatory policies for self-driving cars and advocates for updated safety standards to account for vehicles without traditional design features. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee advanced a companion bill in October called the “American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act,” or the AV START Act that calls for a complementary language shift.

As discussions about advanced vehicles continue to unfold, the work conducted by the transportation institute and its partners will pave the way for the testing and eventual deployment of innovative vehicles equipped with automated driving systems into the U.S. transportation network.

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