The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has just published an extensive document detailing some of the changes it plans to implement in order to better cater for self-driving vehicles. Specifically, it is looking to enforce some exemptions from certain safety standards that wouldn’t apply to a driverless vehicle.

Among the many statements made in the 147 page document (linked in the source at the bottom of the article) is one where the NHTSA explains it wants to

Clarify ambiguities in current occupant protection standards for vehicles equipped with automated driving systems that are designed without traditional manual driver controls. 

And even though we’re not quite at the point where vehicles no longer have the familiar means with which the are controlled (steering wheel and pedals), the prospect of such vehicles driving on public roads is not really that distant. The NHTSA is taking steps to prepare for this shift, instead of making the changes after vehicles that don’t need a driver are already in service.

Basically, all rules that were created with a driver’s seat in mind now need to be amended. In some cases they may be abolished altogether for self-driving cars that no longer come with the traditional methods of controlling the vehicle, or they will be amended in order to be relevant.

For instance, in a vehicle that no longer has a defined driver’s seat, a child could sit in the front left seat, and in a vehicle that would permit this, there would have to be a way to deactivate the airbag for that particular seat. As you may know, airbags aren’t really effective for small children under a certain weight, and some kind of sensor (or manual override) would need to give the car information on who is sitting in that seat so that it would know whether or not to deploy the airbag (or how much it should be deployed).

These projected rule changes wouldn’t only apply to vehicles designed to carry passengers. Chances are, the first real world applications of fully-autonomous vehicles will not be for moving humans around, but cargo or packages instead. We are more likely to see a driverless delivery van than we are a taxi, just because it has fewer legal hurdles to overcome.

For such vehicles, the kinds of crash tests that all modern cars are subjected to would be unnecessary, simply because there would be no occupants on board. They should still be tested for pedestrian safety and safety assist systems, but they would no longer need airbags or seat bets (or even seats, for that matter).

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