On March 10, 2022, Deputy NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff signed a “first-of-its-kind” final rule revising occupant protection standards for automated vehicles. The rule “updates the occupant protection Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards [“FMVSS”] to account for vehicles that do not have traditional manual controls associated with a human driver because they are equipped with automated driving systems [“ADS”].” This is essentially NHTSA’s first attempt to address the effects of vehicle automation on crashworthiness systems.

The final rule, which becomes effective 180 days from its March 30, 2022, publishing in the Federal Register, presents seven significant takeaways. Before delving into specifics, it should be noted what the rule is and is not. It is an attempt to address crashworthiness issues in automated vehicles with traditional, forward-facing seating configurations. It is not an attempt to deal with alternative seating arrangements—like swivel, rear-facing, or “campfire” seating, for example—contemplated for use in some ADS vehicles.

The significant takeaways are as follows:

  1. The notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) proposed to suppress vehicle motion in situations in which child occupants are sensed in the driver’s seat. NHTSA decided against implementing this change, citing the need to study relative risks to children seated in the “driver’s” seat versus the front passenger seat and whether (assuming the former poses a greater risk) there are other ways to address the risk. NHTSA also mentioned exploring necessary refinements to occupant detection and low-risk deployment requirements, and test procedures for the driver’s seat. Basically, NHTSA is still evaluating how to protect small occupants in what used to be the driver’s seat.
  2. The proposed rule would have changed front-row seat compartmentalization occupant protection requirements for large school buses. This was not adopted as part of the final rule.
  3. The final rule modified FMVSS 208, Occupant crash protection, to clarify protections required for inboard seating positions in the front row of ADS-equipped vehicles. For vehicles with less than two front outboard seating positions—at least two front seating positions must be protected by the “full suite of protective countermeasures,” i.e. type 2 seatbelts (lap and shoulder) and advanced airbags. So if a vehicle has no front-outboard seat on the left side of the vehicle, then the middle and right-front outboard seats must have dedicated lap and shoulder belts and advanced airbags.
  4. The rule modifies FMVSS 212, Windshield mounting, and 219, Windshield zone intrusion, to make clear that those standards do not apply to “occupant-less” vehicles.
  5. NHTSA decided against finalizing the proposed rule change to FMVSS 226, Ejection mitigation, which would have required an indicator of readiness for ejection mitigation countermeasures. NHTSA indicated it would address this in a separate rulemaking.
  6. The final rule revised FMVSS 208 to require separate suppression telltales for each front outboard seat “to verify to the caregiver of children placed in seating positions that the corresponding airbag is suppressed and allow other users to determine whether the airbag corresponding to their seating position is properly functioning.” The telltales must be “clearly recognizable to a driver and any front outboard passenger with which seat each telltale is associated.”
  7. Other
    • FMVSS 203, Impact protection for the driver from the steering control system, and 204, Steering control rearward displacement, were revised to clarify that they do not apply to vehicles with no steering controls.
    • FMVSS 207, Seating systems, was revised to state that vehicles with no driving controls are not required to have a “driver’s” seat. But keep in mind the changes to FMVSS 208—at least two front seats are required to have advanced airbags and lap and shoulder belts.

This is a crashworthiness rulemaking, so it does not and is not intended to provide guidance on ADS driving or performance requirements, or what NHTSA intends to do in that area. But the final rule’s changes to FMVSS 203 and 204 and the offhand statement that “[f]or vehicles designed to be solely operated by an ADS, manually operated driving controls are logically unnecessary” acknowledge that vehicles without steering controls are being developed and released.