Autonomous Vehicles: A Regulatory Perspective

The coming innovation of autonomous vehicles (i.e. self-driving cars) has been covered pretty widely in the news over the past 18-24 months.  Not long ago, the reality of autonomous vehicles was unknown to most Americans.  But it is now creeping into the consciousness of more and more Americans.  As the certainty of this new technology approaches, it is becoming clearer that it will cause massive disruption in an area of American life that is intensely regulated at every level.  If you think about it, the manufacture, distribution, sale, ownership, and operation of cars are all regulated by federal, state and local government.  When autonomous vehicles come into the commercial marketplace (as they soon will), the revolutionary transformation they will bring will include significant regulatory changes.

The federal government is embracing the movement from traditional vehicles to autonomous vehicles. In 2015, the White House announced the Smart City initiative which promoted the connectivity of the autonomous vehicle and the environment (e.g. roads, buildings etc.). The White House released a statement pledging an investment of $160 million in federal research and technology collaborations to improve the technologies in cities. In addition, the government proposed about $4 billion in the federal budget for autonomous vehicle research and development over ten years. The government is taking active steps to prepare the country for the change that autonomous vehicles are going to bring, including regulatory change.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.” This Policy is the first set of guidelines outlining the regulation of autonomous vehicles. It focuses on four topics: safety, model state policies, current authorities, and modern regulatory tools.

The DOT’s Policy opens the door for new regulations on autonomous vehicles and calls for states to come up with uniform policies regulating the technology on a local level. The DOT’s emphasis on uniformity among states aims to create a cohesive set of regulations throughout the nation, much like we enjoy today with traditional cars.

Safety, however, is one issue where the federal government has traditionally taken the role of lead regulator when it comes to cars. In that regard, the Policy includes a 15-point safety assessment for the design and development of autonomous vehicles. The safety assessment advises manufactures and tech companies to be concerned with a range of issues, including: what measures to put in place to preserve passenger privacy, how driverless cars should react if aspects of the technology fail, how occupants will be protected in crashes, and how automakers should approach the digital security of driverless vehicles. The Policy also urges driverless-car manufacturers to show how their technology is validated and how they would share data collected by the vehicles. The Policy affirms DOT’s role as lead safety regulator and reminds manufacturers of its power to recall autonomous vehicles if DOT finds them to be unsafe.

Although the new Policy outlines a few major points, many questions still remain unanswered. The DOT’s Policy is not nearly as specific as the mountains of safety regulations imposed on standard human-driven vehicles today. A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explained that this was intentional.  “We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators.” Just as autonomous vehicles are still in the development phase, so is the law.  We’ll keep our eyes out for new regulatory updates.

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