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The Federal Government Wants to Regulate Autonomous Vehicles: Here’s What You Need To Know

, lead policy analyst, Clean Vehicles | September 20, 2016, 4:44 pm EDT
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The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued a 112 page guidance policy aimed at guiding the introduction of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the United States. This is a big deal because AVs are coming to a driveway near you—sooner than you may think—and mark the first step in a multi-year regulatory effort that will ultimately become binding on the AV industry.

Safety is paramount

The federal government has been keen on advancing AV tech because driverless vehicles can make our roads safer. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data suggests that 94 percent of the 2 million annual car crashes in the United States can be tied to human choice or behavior. As AV technology improves via better computer systems and more connectivity between vehicles and infrastructure (think stoplights), these innovations are expected to mitigate the overwhelming majority of crashes that are caused by human error.

Not surprisingly then, the first section of the DOT AV guidance is a 15-point safety assessment that outlines the best practices for designing and testing AVs before selling highly autonomous vehicles to the general public. The safety assessment also details how AV makers should handle gathering, sharing, and securing driving data. AVs will also be subject to DOT’s recall authority, which will allow NHTSA to recall AVs if their software is not deemed as “reasonably safe under real world conditions.”

States regulate the humans, feds regulate the robots

DOT has reaffirmed how the federal government can work with states to regulate vehicle safety. The guidance suggests that the states stick to regulating human drivers while the federal government will cover the vehicles and vehicle equipment (including the computer hardware and software that comprise AV tech). This distinction will allow AV manufacturers to focus on developing a single AV fleet that can be sold and used in all states, and make it easier for motorists not to worry about having a vehicle that is compliant with different state laws when driving across state lines. Since states can still regulate the humans who use the vehicle, regardless of whether they are driving, the DOT guidance created a model policy framework for states to consider when licensing people to use AVs in their jurisdiction.

More federal regulation on autonomous vehicles is coming

As I mentioned above, this guidance is the first step in a multi-year process that will result in binding federal regulations covering AV producers. To tee up what these laws might ultimately look like, the guidance outlines some potential new regulatory tools that could help the DOT expedite the safe introduction of AVs.

One interesting approach is establishing a “pre-market” approval authority. This would allow NHTSA to prohibit the sale of an AV without pre-approval of the vehicle’s safety. Today, the DOT relies on manufacturers to self-certify that their vehicles and equipment comply with safety laws. This is because the DOT doesn’t have enough staff or time to test every single vehicle made, so the agency is forced to prioritize testing the safety standards and vehicles that are associated with the greatest likelihood of failure.

Switching to a pre-market approval authority would widen the scope of the DOT’s testing procedures (and likely their staff size) and potentially provide the public with greater confidence of the safety of AVs. This paradigm would be new to the DOT, but not the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration uses pre-market approval processes to regulate the safety of complex, software-driven products like autopilot systems on commercial aircraft, and unmanned aircraft systems.

In addition, the DOT rightly notes that AVs will access and generate large amounts of data. To help NHTSA better identify potential safety-related defects or necessary software updates, they could require AV makers to submit more types of vehicle and driving data to DOT. The guidance also mentions the importance of minimizing cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities, and sharing best practices for data security among AV industries.

Many questions remain, the answers to which must be guided by science

As the federal agency charged with protecting the traveling public, the DOT is right to emphasize safety. But the DOT notes, “the self-driving car raises more possibilities and more questions than perhaps any other transportation innovation.” So as one of the primary agencies with the authority to regulate AVs, the DOT must also address how AVs will impact transportation more broadly.

Will they decrease or increase emissions? If the latter, how should AV technology be deployed in a way that reduces emissions and improves public health (hint: electric drive paired with renewable energy)? Will AVs improve access to mobility to the disabled, elderly, and disadvantaged, or will this technology be a benefit for only those who can afford to access it? How can we support truck drivers if AV tech takes over the trucking industry?

To ensure AVs not only make our roads safer, but also make our transportation systems and communities better for everyone, the coming AV regulations must be guided by sound science that forecasts the potential impacts of AVs, and not shy away from addressing the larger questions posed by this technology. The DOT should also gather data on how AVs operate in real driving conditions, and then update the regulations to ensure that AVs are helping the U.S. reach broader transportation and climate goals.

To highlight the role and importance science must play in the AV policy process, UCS is developing a set of principles that should guide the introduction of AV policy and will be commenting on this guidance and future AV rulemakings. AV technology, along with electric vehicle drivetrains and shared vehicle services like Uber or Lyft, are fundamentally changing transportation. Whether they are changing transportation for better or worse may greatly depend on whether we have science-based policies in place (before we’re all too busy eating Cheese-Its and watching Netflix in our driverless cars).

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