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Feds Clearing the Way for Self-Driving Vehicles

The year of the self-driving vehicle (SDV) was 2017.

Under the leadership of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the U.S. ushered in a new era of transportation, innovation and safety. With 94 percent of traffic accidents due  to human error, Chao and the Department of Transportation (DOT) proved they recognized the important role self-driving vehicles play in saving lives and ensuring vehicle safety.

At the National Governors Association’s winter meeting last year, Sec. Chao detailed the vision of the federal government in encouraging the development  of SDVs. She noted, “The federal government is a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies, not an impediment. In particular, I want to challenge Silicon Valley, Detroit, and all other auto industry hubs to step up and help educate  a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technology.”

And so far, the industry can say the federal government has indeed been  a catalyst. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the lead regulator of vehicle safety under DOT, made its first public foray into regulations for automated vehicle technologies. The Federal Automated Vehicle Policy (FAVP) set  voluntary guidance for the industry  and for state governments, who have increasingly tried to regulate SDVs.

The second edition of the FAVP updates key sections to reflect a growing understanding of the technology  and its policy needs. One important change is a clarification to states that the Voluntary Safety Self Assessments (VSSA) should not be required and is purely voluntary. The updated VSSA parameters better reflect the type of information most helpful to safety regulators and consumers. NHTSA removed several abstract and ambiguous categories like ethical considerations and data sharing.

The model state policy guidance  was also revamped, providing clarity  tostate legislatures and transportation officials regarding the divisions between federal and state responsibilities. It also highlights areas state officials should focus on to remove barriers and plan  for integrating SDVs into their transportation networks. 

Finally, FAVP 2.0 removed the future regulatory tools section, which caused significant concerns and confusion  in the industry regarding NHTSA’s  potential plans for upending the current self-certification model for meeting Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and moving to a pre-market certification standard. This eliminates the confusion surrounding future  regulation of SDVs. 

Sec. Chao has emphasized the evolving nature of the FAVP, revealing  that NHTSA is working on the third iteration of the policy, which will be more expansive and touch on commercial vehicles and other modes of transportation beyond highway vehicles. 

Encouraging Self-driving Tech 

DOT is not the only one getting in on the self-driving vehicle action. Last year, both chambers of Congress introduced self-driving legislation. The House passed the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388) and the Senate Commerce Committee passed the AV START Act (S. 1885), which still needs to be considered by the full Senate. 

Both the House and Senate bills address key issues important in enabling vehicle technology to advance. First, they harmonize the federal and state roles in regulating vehicle safety, providing clarification that the federal government regulates vehicle performance  and safety requirements. With this distinction clarified, a potential patchwork of different requirements across the country can be avoided. This means state governments retain responsibility for insurance requirements, liability considerations and licensing.  

Another critical element of both bills is the increase in the number, length and scope of exemptions from FMVSS. The exemption process, overseen by  NHTSA, allows for testing of new  vehicle designs and safety features  and for the limited sale of such vehicles. Increasing exemptions is essential in getting SDVs on the roads for real-world testing along with the data collection necessary to shape future regulations and prove the safety of vehicles that would currently not meet FMVSS. 

In the long term, updates to FMVSS are necessary to accommodate the changing safety features and designs of self-driving vehicles. There are  currently hundreds of references in the federal vehicle safety code to human drivers and many safety standards require elements that may not be necessary or wise in a fully selfdriving vehicle. It will take substantial time and planning to update the  outdated standards or create a new approach, and both bills lay out processes for how regulators should do so. 

What will 2018 bring? If the House and Senate bills iron out  their differences, we can expect the President to sign the bill, changing the future of self-driving vehicles  in the U.S. Together with regulators  at DOT, Congress and the executive branch we can predict that transportation will be reshaped to save  lives and improve safety and mobility in the future.

Jamie Boone