NHTSA greenlights self-driving cars without manual controls

Ditching the steering wheel and pedals could enable a new class of autonomous vehicles.

The Cadillac InnerSpace concept parked on a sandy cliff with a sunset (or sunrise) in the background. (GM)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened the door for self-driving vehicles to operate without manual controls under updated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. While fully autonomous vehicles are likely several years away from going on sale, the new rule paves the way for automakers to remove the steering wheel and pedals.

“Through the 2020s, an important part of [the Department of Transportation's] safety mission will be to ensure safety standards keep pace with the development of automated driving and driver assistance systems,” transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said. “This new rule is an important step, establishing robust safety standards for [Automated Driving Systems]-equipped vehicles.”

The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards regulate all elements of production cars, as Roadshow notes. The latest rule stipulates that whether or not they have a steering wheel and pedals, vehicles with automated driving systems need to offer the same level of protection to drivers and passengers as other cars.

Fully autonomous (Level 5) cars aren't on the market yet. Teslas are at Level 2 (they have some autonomy, but a human driver needs to be ready to take control). Volkswagen is making a Level 4 version of its ID.Buzz EV, while pilot projects for robotaxis and self-driving shuttles are underway. At CES 2022, Cadillac showed off a luxury concept EV without a steering wheel or pedals.

NHTSA acknowledged uncertainty about the development and deployment of vehicles equipped with ADS. "Nevertheless, NHTSA believes it is appropriate to finalize this action at this time in anticipation of emerging ADS vehicle designs that NHTSA has seen in prototype form," the agency said.