Recent NHTSA Actions Focus on Automated Vehicles, ADAS, and Safety Ratings

A series of March announcements signal changes for automated vehicles, driver assistance systems, and safety ratings

A shot of a person in the behind the steering wheel of a car buckling their seatbelt

April 1, 2022

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recently taken a series of actions signaling important changes for automakers and consumers. In the past month, the agency released its 2020 crash data, proposed notable changes to its 5-Star Safety Ratings system, initiated historic rulemakings, and updated descriptions for levels of automation that further emphasize the distinction between assistive (L0 — L2) and automated (L3 — L5) features.

Overall, the agency appears to be tackling multiple safety and technology issues from both ends of the value chain by removing regulatory barriers for automated driving systems (ADS)-equipped vehicles without traditional controls, proposing new methods for assessing advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and creating pathways for consumers to better understand the use and limitations of evolving technologies.

On March 2, NHTSA released its Overview of Motor Vehicle Crashes in 2020 indicating concerning trends in U.S. traffic safety. Despite an 11% drop in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to 2019, 38,824 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2020, representing a 6.8% increase — and the highest number of fatalities since 2007. Notably, speeding, alcohol impairment, unrestrained passengers, and ejected vehicle occupants all saw significant upticks. Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities also rose to their highest numbers since the late 1980s.

In the weeks since the report, NHTSA followed with pivotal announcements regarding new and emerging vehicle technologies. First, it released a request for comments on proposed updates to its 5-Star Ratings program, also known as the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). NHTSA describes NCAP as "a key component of the Department [of Transportation's] National Roadway Safety Strategy," under the Biden Administration's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which also recently rolled out a new safety roadmap aimed at addressing "the national crisis in roadway fatalities and serious injuries."

In addition to long-term goals such as incorporating intelligent speed assist, rear child reminder assist, and alcohol detection into its ratings, NHTSA has made four ranking recommendations related to new driver-assistance technologies (lane-keeping support, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, and blind spot detection and intervention) that could soon factor into the 5-Star Ratings program and inform vehicle purchase decisions.

Second, and aligned to the broad potential of ADS technologies to transform road safety, NHTSA has finalized a landmark rule to update Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), providing a clearer pathway to certifying vehicles without driving controls.


This first-of-its-kind action removes a critical regulatory hurdle in the future of driverless vehicles.


However, it has been carefully articulated to ensure automakers are aware that ADS-equipped vehicles without manual controls will be subject to the same rigorous safety standards as current passenger vehicles.

Finally, on March 22, NHTSA announced a new media campaign to improve public knowledge of the safety benefits of ADAS technologies, focused on specific features such as automatic high beams, blind spot intervention, rear automatic braking, and lane keeping assistance. The campaign coincides with updated descriptions for existing and planned levels of vehicle automation, which notably describe Levels 2 and below as assistive — not automated — and have the phrase "You drive, you monitor" attached. For Levels 3 and above, the term automation is paired with more details about the responsibilities of the driver/occupant. A timeline of how NHTSA envisions ADAS and ADS technologies to progress toward fully automated safety features by 2025 and beyond is also available.

How Exponent Can Help

Exponent's multidisciplinary experts from our Vehicle Engineering, Human Factors, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, and Data Sciences practices have been involved in evaluating the performance of driver assistance systems for over a decade. Today, we actively support clients in bringing new technologies to market, including technical review, and evaluating whether design elements conflict with new and evolving regulatory rulings. Our consultants are involved in the testing and analysis of ADS and ADAS systems against rigorous up-to-date safety standards, both during development and when vehicles are involved in crashes. Exponent is well versed in assessing driver behavior and the performance of various ADS and ADAS applications as well as providing customized testing and conducting independent reviews and statistical analyses of field performance data.