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Speeches and Presentations

Automated Vehicles Symposium

Keynote | James Owens, Deputy Administrator

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 |


Good morning.  I’m James Owens and I am the Deputy Administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I am pleased to be with you today, albeit virtually.  Thank you to the organizers of the Automated Vehicles Symposium for their work to transition this event from in person to virtual.  And to all of our attendees, I hope you and your families are safe and healthy.

I would like to extend a special thank you to the sponsors of this symposium: the Transportation Research Board and Neil Pederson, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and Brian Wynne.

At the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, we have faced many of the same issues your companies have experienced over the past few months.  But, just like you, we are resilient and have adapted to the changing times, never losing sight of our mission.  The majority of our workforce continues to telework, and we have shifted our events and announcements online with great success.  Our work, whether in data collection, research, rulemaking, or enforcement, is uninterrupted.  

In fact, just last month, NHTSA and the Department of Transportation launched a first-of-its-kind program to promote transparency, safety, and public engagement in the development and on-road testing of automated driving systems.

The Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing Initiative, or AV TEST, is the first platform connecting the public, manufacturers, developers, operators, and all levels of government to voluntarily share information about the on-road testing and development of prototype automated driving systems.  

Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao joined us for the announcement, and I appreciate her leadership on this important issue.  She is firmly committed to ensuring that the United States continues to lead in the innovation and development of transportation technologies.  As she frequently says, safety is our number one priority, and I couldn’t agree more.

So far, 17 states and companies have signed on as the first group of organizations in the web pilot component of the AV TEST Initiative.  The companies are Beep, Cruise, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Local Motors, Navya, Nuro, Toyota, Uber, and Waymo.  

Eight states – California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah – have also committed to the web pilot.

In addition, more than 35 organizations, including states, local governments, and private sector companies, have already reached out to discuss joining, or are participating in the engagement part of the AV TEST initiative. Likewise, we had more than a thousand stakeholder organizations attend the public launch events during the week of June 15.  We appreciate everyone’s interest in this initiative.

The AV TEST Initiative is open to all stakeholders involved in the development and testing of vehicles equipped with automated driving systems in the United States, and we look forward to having many more partners join us in this important transparency, public education, and engagement project.  We welcome all stakeholders to join this initiative.  If you have interest, please reach our team at NHTSA or sign up for email updates online at

By joining this initiative, companies and governments can show the public their commitment to transparency and education as this technology continues to develop.

Educating drivers about automated driving systems is important, because there are many misconceptions about vehicles equipped with these technologies, their availability, and capabilities.  

For starters, there are no fully self-driving vehicles available for sale to the public today.  Any vehicle the public can buy today cannot drive itself and requires an active, attentive, and fully engaged driver ready to act at any time.

What companies are testing are prototype vehicles equipped with automated driving systems on public roads in limited areas and for limited use.  Some of these vehicles operate on public roads under a program that allows NHTSA to grant exemptions for research or demonstration purposes.  Since October 21, 2016, NHTSA has granted permission for the temporary authorization of 87 automated driving system-equipped vehicles for testing and limited demonstrations in 89 different projects in 20 states.

Additionally, earlier this year, NHTSA granted a request from Nuro for a temporary exemption from certain low-speed vehicle standards. 

This authorizes Nuro to deploy up to 5,000 low-speed, occupant-less vehicles over two years, which will be used for deliveries for restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses.  As a condition of the exemption, NHTSA has set in place mandatory reporting of information about the vehicles’ operations, and is requiring outreach to the communities where the vehicles will be deployed. 

As the nation’s highway traffic safety agency, NHTSA is particularly interested in the safe development and testing of automated driving vehicles.  These systems hold the potential to one day help prevent fatal crashes, save lives, and reduce crash severity.  These technologies may also one day improve mobility for underserved communities, including people with disabilities and older adults.  

Once these technologies have been safely tested and proven, public trust will be key to their acceptance – and fulfilling their lifesaving potential.  The AV TEST Initiative will help provide a critical resource to educate and engage the public about these vehicles, the scope of on-road testing, and the stakeholders involved.  

The AV TEST Initiative will provide an online, public-facing platform for sharing automated driving systems on-road testing activities and other relevant information at the local, state, and national levels.  

Participating companies and governments can use online mapping tools to show on-road testing locations.  They can also choose to share testing activity data, such as vehicle types and uses, dates, frequency, vehicle counts, and routes.  

Meanwhile, state and local governments may provide information about vehicle operation regulations, emergency response plans, and legislation. 

One day, fleets of vehicles with automated driving systems may be broadly deployed across the country to drive you to work or take your elderly parents to the doctor.  That day isn’t here yet, but the AV TEST Initiative will play an important role in improving transparency and public understanding as we work toward this exciting possibility.

During these unprecedented times, we have seen how some of these novel technologies can address unique challenges and help underserved populations.  Vehicles undergoing testing have been used to deliver meals to families at high risk of COVID exposure.  Delivery robots are now distributing hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, as well as groceries and prescription medications.    

These initiatives show the promise of ADS-equipped vehicles, but they are still in development and not yet available for purchase by the general public.  NHTSA exercises oversight over these developing technologies by engaging closely with developers, conducting research into emerging technologies and human factors, investigating incidents and complaints, and when necessary and appropriate, exercising our broad enforcement authority.

All motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment are subject to an existing requirement in the United States – they cannot create an unreasonable risk to safety.  When NHTSA determines that there is an unreasonable risk to safety, we do not hesitate to use our defect authority to ensure that the product is recalled.

When the time is right—when the technology is proven—our history shows that we may adopt performance-based standards for vehicle technologies and others that may emerge.

I would like to speak briefly on two rulemakings in progress related to automated driving systems.

First, we are working on an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or an ANPRM, on varying regulatory approaches to motor vehicles equipped with automated driving systems.  We plan to seek public comment on the creation of a safety framework for objectively and transparently assessing and validating the safety performance of each ADS vehicle.

This ANPRM also plans to seek comment on developing and establishing a regulatory approach such as amending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or developing alternative safety regulations relating to ADS vehicle performance.

We are working to publish this ANPRM soon, and I encourage you to comment.  We will consider all feedback carefully and thoughtfully.

Second, we are also working on a recently proposed rulemaking that sought public comment to amend crashworthiness regulations that may be necessary to facilitate the certification of motor vehicles equipped without conventional driver controls.  

NHTSA is drafting several other rulemakings and efforts that I believe will be of interest to you.  The Spring 2020 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions was published in the Federal Register on June 30.  I encourage you to review it for a full list of our rulemaking priorities.

Before I go, let me update you on two more items of interest to many of you:

NHTSA is in the process of updating our automotive cybersecurity best practices.  This was first issued in 2016, and an internal draft of our planned update is currently under review.  When we release the update, we will open a Federal Register docket and welcome public comment.

And finally, later this year, we will announce changes to the New Car Assessment Program, our five-star new vehicle safety ratings program, to make it even more relevant and informative for consumers.  NHTSA is considering adding new crash avoidance technologies, including ones focused on pedestrian safety.  We also plan to refine how the information is presented to consumers to allow for more meaningful vehicle safety comparisons.  

As you can see, we have a lot in motion right now, and we will continue to have a lot in motion in the coming weeks and months.  The work that NHTSA has done and continues to do prioritizes safety and fulfills our lifesaving mission.

NHTSA will continue to engage with our stakeholders as we draft ADS-equipped vehicle policies and regulations that uphold the United States as the world’s leader in vehicle technology while strengthening NHTSA’s vital safety mission.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today, thank you for your time, and please, stay safe.