Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Pennsylvania's Autonomous Vehicle Testing Guidelines

PennDOT has just issued new Automated Vehicle Testing Guidance:
       July 2018 PennDOT AV Testing Guidance (link to acrobat document)
(also, there is a press release.)


It's only been a short three months since the PA AV Summit in which PennDOT took up a challenge to improve AV testing policy. Today PennDOT released a significantly revised policy as promised. And it looks like they've been listening to safety advocates as well as AV companies.

At a high level, there is a lot to like about this policy. It makes it clear that a written safety plan is required, and suggests addressing one way or another the big three items I've proposed for AV testing safety
  • Make sure that the driver is paying attention
  • Make sure that the driver is capable of safing the vehicle in time when something goes wrong
  • Make sure that the Big Red Button (disengagement mechanism) is actually safe

There are a number of items in the guidance that look like a good idea. Here is a partial list of ones that catch my idea as being on the right track (many other ideas in the document are also good):

Good Ideas:
  • Submission of a written safety plan
  • Must have a safety driver in the driver seat who is able to take immediate physical control as required
  • Two safety drivers above 25 mph to ensure that the safety drivers are able to tend to both the safety driving and the testing
  • Validation "under controlled conditions" before on-road testing
  • Disengagement technology complies with industry standards
  • Safety driver training is mandatory, and has a nice list of required topics
  • Data recording for post-mishap analysis
  • Mitigate cybersecurity risk
  • Quality controls to ensure that major items are "adhered to and measured to ensure safe operation"
There are also some ideas that might or might not work out well in practice. I'm not so sure how these will work out, and they seem in some cases to be compromises:

Not Sure About These:
  • Only one safety driver required below 25 mph. It's true that low speed pedestrian collisions are less lethal, and there can be more time to react, so the risk is somewhat lower. But time will tell if drivers are able to stay sufficiently alert to avoid mishaps even if they are lower speed.
  • It's not explicit about the issue of ensuring that there is enough time for a safety driver to intervene when something goes wrong. It's implicit in the parts about a driver being able to safe the vehicle. It's possible that this was considered a technical issue for developers rather than regulators, but in my mind it is a primary concern that can easily be overlooked in a safety plan. This topic should be more explicitly called out in the safety plan.
  • The data reporting beyond crashes is mostly just tracking drivers, vehicles, and how much testing they are doing.  I'd like to see more reporting regarding how well they are adhering to their own safety plan. It's one thing to say things look good via hand waving and "trust us, we're smart." It's another to report metrics such as how often drivers drop out during testing and what corrective actions are taken in response to such data. (The rate won't be a perfect zero; continual improvement should be the goal, as well as mishap rates no worse than conventional vehicles during testing.) I realize picking metrics can be a problem -- so just let each company decide for themselves what they want to report. The requirement should be to show evidence that safety is actually being achieved during testing. To be fair, there is a bullet in the document requiring quality controls. I'd like that bullet to have more explicit teeth to get the job done.
  • The nicely outlined PennDOT safety plan can be avoided by instead submitting something following the 2017 NHTSA AV Guidance. That guidance is a lot weaker than the 2016 NHTSA AV Guidance was. Waymo and GM have already created such public safety disclosures, and others are likely coming. However, it is difficult for a reader to know if AV vendors are just saying a lot of buzzwords or are actually doing the right things to be safe. Ultimately I'm not comfortable with "trust us, we're safe" with no supporting evidence. While some disclosure is better than no disclosure, the public deserves better than NHTSA's rather low bar in safety plan transparency, which was not intended to deal specifically with on-road testing. We'll have to see how this alternative option plays out, and what transparency the AV testers voluntarily provide. Maybe the new 2018 NHTSA AV Guidance due later this summer will raise the bar again.
Having said nice things for the most part, there are a few areas which really need improvement in a future revision. I realize they didn't have time to solve everything in three months, and it's good to see the progress they made. But I hope these areas are on the list for the next iteration:

Not A Fan:
  • Only one safety driver above 25 mph after undergoing "enhanced driver safety training." It's unclear what this training might really be, or if more training will really result in drivers that can do solo testing safely. I'd like to see something more substantive demonstrating that solo drivers will actually be safe in practice. Training only goes so far, and no amount of hiring only experienced drivers will eliminate the fact that humans have trouble staying engaged when supervising autonomy for long stretches of time. I'm concerned this will end up being a loophole that puts solo drivers in an untenable safety role.
  • No independent auditing. This is a big one, and worth discussing at length.
The biggest issue I see is no requirement for independent auditing of safety. I can understand why it might be difficult to get testers on board with such a requirement, especially a requirement for third party auditing. The AV business is shrouded in secrecy. Nobody wants PennDOT or anyone else poking around in their business. But every other safety-critical domain is based on an approach of transparent, independent safety assessment.

A key here is that independent auditing does NOT have to include public release of information.  The "secret sauce" doesn't even have to be revealed to auditors, so long as the system is safe regardless of what's in the fancy autonomy parts of the system. There are established models to keep trade secrets a secret used in other industries while still providing independent oversight of safety. There's no reason AVs should be any different. After all, we're all being put at risk by AV testing when we share public roads with them, even as pedestrians. AV testing ought to have transparent, independent safety oversight.

Overall, I think this guidance is excellent progress from PennDOT that puts us ahead of most, if not all locations in the US regarding AV safety testing. I hope that AV testers take this and my points above to heart, and get ahead of the safety testing problem.

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