Seeking a Common Language for Vehicle Automation

SAE’s testimony before Congress aims to establish a standard vocabulary for automated and self-driving vehicles.

Although NHTSA adopted SAE’s Levels of Automation in September 2016 for its own policy use, Congress has yet to make a ruling on using the standard or any guideline at the federal and state levels.

In late March, SAE had a unique opportunity—a first, according to the record books: Testifying before Congress about an SAE Standard. More specifically J3016—Levels of Vehicle Automation.

William Gouse, who directs SAE’s Federal Program Development activity, faced the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection that is addressing self-driving cars. Gouse served as witness, his testimony aimed at getting the federal government to adopt SAE J3016 both in federal policy and state regulations/legislation. He was joined by three other SAE members, Dr. Kay Stepper of Robert Bosch, Jeff Klei of Continental AG and David Zuby of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This was itself another first—a Congressional hearing made up strictly of SAE members.

In September 2016, NHTSA adopted SAE’s Levels of Automation for its own use in its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (U.S. DoT Chooses SAE J3016 for Vehicle-Autonomy Policy Guidance). However, Congress has yet to make a ruling on using the standard or any guideline at the federal and state levels.

Gouse told Automotive Engineering that there currently isn’t a common language—a vocabulary—used consistently for referring to the levels of automation across the U.S. at both federal and state levels. This has caused extensive confusion.

“I have been trying to get people to use the same terms and how to define automated driving [levels],” he said. In Gouse’s role as a witness at the hearing, he informed the subcommittee members about SAE’s leadership in consensus-based standards development and about SAE J3016.

“This Recommended Practice originally published in 2014 and revised last September, and referenced in the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, provides stakeholders including federal, state, and local/municipal legislators, regulators and policy-makers with a taxonomy describing the full range of six levels (SAE 0 through 5) of driving automation in on-road motor vehicles,” Gouse stated in his testimony. “These six levels span from no automation to full automation.”

During his allotted five minutes of testimony, Gouse also noted: “Importantly, what these standards do not provide are specifications, or otherwise impose requirements on, driving automation systems or active safety systems. Nor does it imply any particular order of market introduction or adoption.”

Gouse explained that standardizing levels of driving automation and supporting terms serves several purposes, including:

  • Clarifying the role of the (human) driver, if any, during driving automation system engagement.
  • Answering questions of scope when it comes to developing laws, policies, regulations, and standards.
  • Providing a useful framework for driving automation specifications and technical requirements.
  • Providing clarity, consistency, and stability in communications on the topic of driving automation, as well as a useful short-hand that saves considerable time and effort.

He also said that J3016 is “designed to be useful to many beyond the engineering community, such as legislators, regulators, others in the legal profession, the general and trade media and consumers and the public that are buying, riding in, or having freight delivered in a vehicle with some level of driver assistance or automation.”

“In the current system, you can drive your car or a rental car to New York, Ohio or Virginia for example, and they’re aren’t separate laws [in each state],” he told AE. “But you can’t do that with Google or Uber cars right now. That’s what’s happening because they’re being governed by separate state laws. Some states are changing them [laws] to allow for the testing, others are not. It’s a complicated deal.”

Gouse said there are ongoing hearings in both the Senate and the House regarding technology of passenger and commercial vehicles, such as driver assistance systems, driving automation systems, cybersecurity and the federal versus state's role in regulation of testing and operation. Both chambers are working on drafts that will direct or give guidance to the DOT and the states.

The hearing and Q&A session, along with Gouse and the other three SAE members full testimonies, can be viewed here .