Feds Approve Cars Without Steering Wheels In America

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Cars that are built to be autonomous from the word go have no need, so why include redundancy?

Although some might argue that it defeats the purpose of owning a car, autonomous mobility is the next frontier for almost every mainstream manufacturer. Together with employing electromobility for the sake of reducing carbon emissions to preserve the planet, every car maker has a strong desire to reduce road fatalities to a minimal figure.

It has already been proven that advanced driver assistance systems have been fundamental in reducing collisions and can save lives but unfortunately, both the current state of technology and road networks cannot sustain a car that can be driven entirely by a computer system. If you look at the past decade though, the assisted driving technology sphere is advancing rapidly.

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The US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been a very active voice for autonomous driving capabilities and holding companies accountable when said systems fail. The administration has now revealed a new rule that it has passed which will directly affect future cars with autonomous capabilities but this time it isn't exactly a new restriction.

This rule is an update to the occupant protection Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards so that it covers cars that have been assembled without traditional car controls only if the manufacturer opted to omit it from the design because it believes the autonomous features may make it unnecessary. The new rule clarifies that with a car that is fully capable of driving without human intervention, manufacturers are not required to install a steering system or other conventional controls such as pedals and gear selectors.

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"Through the 2020s, an important part of USDOT's safety mission will be to ensure safety standards keep pace with the development of automated driving and driver assistance systems," says US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. "This new rule is an important step, establishing robust safety standards for ADS-equipped vehicles."

Deputy Administrator of the NHTSA Dr. Steven Cliff says, "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. With this rule, we ensure that manufacturers put safety first."

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Before this amendment, the standards were insistent that regardless of a car's capabilities, conventional car controls must be present in the cabin. This adjustment must come as a bit of a relief for manufacturers who already have made investments to design autonomous cars that will cater to the US market with a cabin free of a steering wheel and other controls.

What the rule does not falter on, as stated in the 155-page document detailing every aspect of the amendment, is the inclusion of occupant protection measures in the event of a collision. These features must not deteriorate just because accident prevention technologies are massively improved. Included in this is everything from seatbelts, airbags, and even sun visors. Other caveats to the ruling stipulate that a child may not be positioned in the traditional driver's position.

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The NHTSA says that it has pushed this rule forward because it also wants to ensure the safety of road users with the rapid evolution of automotive autonomy. The agency also promises that it will continue to work hard on safely testing these technologies by covering all aspects of its market implementation, including data collection and analysis, research, human factors, rulemaking and enforcement.

The idea of removing the steering wheel from the cabin is nothing new and forms an important part of future interior design. The use of a yoke steering wheel in the Tesla Model S is backed by the idea of having less human control over a car. Audi has been a bit more cautious with its approach to autonomy but we have already seen it use a stowable steering system in its Skysphere concept.

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