WASHINGTON—NHTSA has issued a final rule that will allow U.S. manufacturers of vehicles and equipment to seek an exemption from federal safety standards for purposes of research or demonstration, according to a federal document.
The rule allows domestic manufacturers that produce nonconforming vehicles and equipment to operate those products on public roads—potentially speeding the development of automated driving systems and other forward-looking technologies in the U.S.
In a statement, the agency said the action "levels the playing field with importers, which until this rule were the only entities able to obtain these research and demonstration waivers and will help ensure that domestic manufacturers will have the same opportunity to develop and demonstrate automated shuttles and other innovative technologies."
NHTSA Deputy Administrator James Owens signed the federal document Dec. 31, and it is being submitted for publication in the Federal Register, the agency said.
The new rule establishes a program for manufacturers of domestically produced vehicles and equipment to obtain temporary exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for purposes of "research, investigations, demonstrations, training, competitive racing events, show or display," according to the document.
The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, opposed the expanded exemption over safety concerns.
"While leveling the playing field for domestic manufacturers and the safe development of driverless cars are laudable goals, there's little evidence this rushed final regulation accomplishes either," Executive Director Jason Levine said in a statement. "Midnight rule making should not be used to get around NTHSA's responsibility to ensure that all vehicles on U.S. roads, be they foreign or domestic, are safe."
The program is not limited to vehicles equipped with automated driving systems, but NHTSA said it "anticipates that many of the benefits of the program will be derived from new manufacturers and technology companies engaging in domestic production for the developing and testing (of ) these advanced vehicle technologies."
Vehicles exempted under the program can be operated on U.S. roads for research or demonstration only.
NHTSA said the rule provides an "urgently needed means" for innovators and developers of new technologies to continue the momentum they had prior to the coronavirus pandemic and pursue technological breakthroughs in vehicle safety.
"For domestic developers of ADS technologies to realize the full promise of ADS, it is vital that they have opportunities to gain practical, on-road experience to validate the development and findings from laboratory and track testing and learn which approaches and combinations of hardware and software offer the greatest levels of safety and reliability," the agency said.
In November, NHTSA said it was seeking public input on how to ensure the safety of automated vehicles and that that could result in the agency issuing new guidance documents addressing an AV safety framework.