Federal Autonomous Vehicle Legislation Hits a Speed Bump

As a busy year for autonomous vehicle (AV) policy winds down, federal legislation appears to have hit a snag in the U.S. Senate. I also have a look at state AV policy activities in 2017, links to a variety of recent reports and a preview of an AV policy discussion at next week’s CSG National Conference in Las Vegas.

The Senate’s AV START Legislation

It looked for a while like driverless car legislation was going to sail through Congress this year but the Senate’s version of the bill appeared to hit a snag at the end of last week, The Hill reported Sunday. The AV START bill (S.1885), co-authored by Senators John Thune (South Dakota) and Gary Peters (Michigan), is written to help the automotive industry speed up the deployment and testing of autonomous vehicles by gradually waiving traditional automobile standards for up to 80,000 vehicles. The authority over industry safety standards would be in the hands of the U.S. Department of Transportation and their authority would pre-empt any state laws that address that area. State and local authorities would still be responsible for areas like traffic safety, vehicle registration and law enforcement under the bill.

The AV START measure was set up for a fast track process called hotlining that seeks to identify any issues that might keep a bill from being considered under unanimous consent with the goal of completing work on the measure by the end of the year. But Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal were among those said to have placed a hold on the bill due to concerns they have with the measure.

Bloomberg reported that Markey wants to strengthen provisions regarding automotive defects, cyberattacks and consumer privacy while Blumenthal has expressed safety concerns with the legislation. During the Senate Commerce Committee’s markup of the bill, Blumenthal offered an amendment (later withdrawn) that would have required a driver to be behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle, a provision bill sponsors said would have undermined the purpose of the legislation. Other Senators are said to be concerned the Senate bill does not address driverless trucking.

Several Senators are thought to be contemplating amendments to the bill if it makes it to the Senate floor. But it's unclear whether remaining issues can be easily resolved before the Senate wraps up business for the year as they also try to navigate spending bills and other must-do measures.

If the bill does make it through the Senate, it would then have to be reconciled with a similar bill that passed the House in September known as the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388).

State Autonomous Vehicle Legislation in 2017

With seemingly an announcement every day about the impending arrival of autonomous vehicles, many states in 2017 took actions they hope will give them a leg up in attracting companies that want to test and deploy these vehicles in a variety of settings. While this year might not have produced quite the tsunami of legislation that some automakers feared as the year began, 14 states did pass new laws that address autonomous vehicle policy in some way. Governors in three other states issued executive orders in this arena. Some notes on what states did:

  • Truck Platooning: Lawmakers in Arkansas, California, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas enacted legislation designed to allow truck platooning or testing on roads in those states.
  • Pre-Emption of Local Regulation: Colorado, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas enacted measures that seek to pre-empt local regulation of autonomous vehicles and/or put a state government agency in charge.
  • Pilot Program: Connecticut enacted legislation to establish a pilot program for up to four municipalities to test fully autonomous vehicles on public roads.
  • Licensing, Registration & Insurance: Legislation in Georgia exempts a person operating a vehicle with an automated driving system engaged from the requirement of holding a driver’s license and specifies conditions that must be met for a vehicle to operate without a human driver present, including insurance and registration requirements.
  • Studies and Advisory Panels: North Dakota legislation authorized the state department of transportation to study the use of automated driving systems and the data stored or gathered by them. The agency will also review current laws dealing with licensing, registration, insurance, data ownership and use, and inspection in the context of vehicles with automated driving systems. Vermont legislation requires the state DOT to convene a meeting of stakeholders on a range of topics related to automated vehicles. It requires the secretary of transportation to report to the legislature with any recommendations for proposed legislation or other action. Delaware Gov. John Carney’s executive order established an advisory council tasked with developing recommendations for tools and strategies to prepare the state’s transportation network for autonomous and connected vehicles. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order established an interagency work group and enables pilot programs throughout the state. It also requires state agencies to support the safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s executive order creates a steering committee to advise the governor on how best to advance the testing and operation of autonomous and connected vehicles in the state. The committee is required to identify all agencies with jurisdiction over testing and deployment, coordinate with the agencies to address issues like registration, licensing, insurance, traffic regulations, equipment standards and vehicle owner or operator responsibilities and liabilities under current law and review current state laws and regulations that may impede testing and deployment.

Other Recent State Activities

  • The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana reports that the state DOT, Indiana State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles are working with private firms and Purdue University to prepare Indiana for self-driving vehicles. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has identified development of autonomous vehicles as a priority in laying out his 2018 agenda and legislators could consider legislation next year to create a task force to evaluate changes needed to bring autonomous and connected vehicles to Indiana roads.
  • Some state legislators in North Carolina got the chance to experience firsthand what riding in a driverless vehicle is like recently, WNCN in Raleigh reported. Rep. John Torbett, who chairs the House Strategic Transportation Planning and Long-Term Funding Solutions Committee, said there is a bipartisan effort underway in the state to tackle the changes autonomous vehicles are likely to bring in the years ahead.

Industry Developments

  • Waymo, the self-driving car arm of Google/Alphabet, recently announced they passed a new milestone: their driverless vehicles have now driven more than 4 million miles on public roads, The Verge reported.
  • General Motors and Cruise announced recently they’re on track to deploy a self-driving ride-hailing service by 2019, Tech Crunch noted.

Recent Reports

  • A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued last month finds that automated cars and light-duty trucks pose safety and infrastructure challenges for policymakers and the U.S. Department of Transportation does not have a comprehensive plan to address these challenges.
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute have compiled a list of the cities worldwide that are testing or developing autonomous vehicles. Among the cities Stateside that are hosting testing or that have committed to doing so in the near future: Arlington, Austin and San Antonio, TX; Boston; Chandler, AZ; Concord and San Francisco, CA; Detroit; Las Vegas and Reno, NV; Pittsburgh; Tampa and Washington, DC. Among the cities that have undertaken long-range surveys of the regulatory, planning, and governance issues raised by AVs: Ann Arbor, MI; Cambridge, MA; Columbus and Dublin, OH; Denver; Jacksonville and Orlando, FL; Lincoln, NE; Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Sacramento, San Diego and Santa Monica, CA; Nashville; Portland, OR and Seattle.
  • The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recently issued a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism” that addresses how city streets might be redesigned to accommodate autonomous vehicles in the future.
  • Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute outlined “The Many Problems With Autonomous Vehicles” in a recent piece for Planetizen. Litman finds that while autonomous vehicles may become commercially available in the 2020s, they “will initially be costly and constrained, adding a few thousand dollars in annualized costs, and able to self-drive only on designated highways in good weather, and so will mainly be purchased by affluent, longer-distance motorists.” He says “it will probably be the 2030s or 2040s before autonomous vehicles are sufficiently affordable and reliable that most new vehicle buyers will purchase vehicles with self-driving ability, and the 2050s before most vehicle travel is autonomous.”

Autonomous Vehicles on the Agenda in Las Vegas

Autonomous vehicle policy will be on the agenda next week when the CSG Transportation and Infrastructure Public Policy Committee convenes at the CSG National Conference in Las Vegas. The committee will hear from Rudy Malfabon, Director of the Nevada Department of Transportation. Among the issues he is expected to address is his state’s approach to autonomous vehicles, which began with first-in-the-nation legislation in 2011. I spoke with Malfabon recently for this session preview that appears in this week’s issue of The Current State. Following the director’s remarks, we’ll have a roundtable discussion that will include updates from three key industry stakeholders: The Association of Global Automakers, Audi of America and Uber.