General Motors new safety feature falls foul of US regulators

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has cautioned General Motors about a new semi-autonomous Super Cruise system which it plans to introduce next year.

Super Cruise is the nickname for GM’s automated driving technology which will offer customers various autonomous features includes hands-off lane following, braking and speed control in certain highway driving conditions. As part of the system, GM has introduced technology which can monitor the driver’s responsiveness, and if necessary, slowly bring the car to a stop if the driver is inattentive.

According to Detroit News, the NHTSA is concerned over whether putting the hazard lights on as the system slows the car will confuse other drivers, and if it presents an unreasonable risk to safety. Some people are just never happy.

GM has introduced what sounds like a very reasonable and sensible system into the car which addresses a safety concern voiced by critics of self-driving cars, and the NHTSA finds a problem with it. If the hazard lights are not to be used in such a case (an unresponsive driver sounds pretty hazardous), then when should they be used.

The main problem for the NHTSA is traditionally hazard lights are used after a car has stopped to indicate a problem, not while the vehicle is moving. This could cause confusion for other drivers.

“Any other automatic activation of hazard warning lights would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” said NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh. “NHTSA may also consider amending the relevant provisions of (federal motor vehicle standards) at some point in the future in order to clarify situations when hazard lights may activate automatically.”

This statement is a typical example of the red-tape technology innovators have to deal with when trying to negotiate with the cumbersome and tiring public sector. You have to feel a bit sorry for the GM team; it has come up with a genuinely good idea which could lead to a number of lives being saved on the roads throughout the world, and it has been halted in its tracks because of red tape.

The NHTSA has said GM has to “ensure that this fall back solution (turning on the hazard lights and slowing down the car) does not pose an unreasonable risk to safety” but surely this isn’t a massive issue. Even if GM’s solution offers slight risk, surely it is significantly safer to turn the hazards on and get the car off the road.

Overall this is an example of rules designed for the analogue world not being suitable for the digital one. It is almost impossible in some cases to adapt old rules to suit the new world, but you can guarantee civil servants will try. Sometimes you have to realize the digital world requires regulators to start again with the rule book and accept old-school methods are just not going to work.

The Super Cruise system itself allows for hands-off driving, what some would consider the third stage of autonomous driving development, but the driver still needs to pay attention. The next stage is generally where people in the car don’t have to pay attention. In the right circumstances the driver can be hands off and does not need to have feet on the pedals either.

The system monitors facial cues to make sure the driver is still attentive; if it senses the driver is sleeping or not paying attention, it sends visual warnings, including a light bar on the steering wheel, and then audio warnings. Should it get to the point where it has decided the driver in non-responsive, it will activate the safety protocols to slow the car down and drive it to a safe place to stop.

The system was supposed to be introduced this year, though the GM had to push this back to 2017, and it looks although the red-tape could cause issues here as well. All in all, it’s a good idea and one which is seemingly being pushed back because regulators are not being adaptable. Unlucky GM, you have a good idea, just needs a bit more work apparently.

  • Connected & Autonomous Vehicles

  • Connected Cars & Autonomous Vehicles Europe

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