States to Receive Guidance on Autonomous Vehicles This Year

Next month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is expected to issue what is being billed as a model state policy as well as “best-practice guidance to industry on establishing principles of safe operation for fully autonomous vehicles.” Then, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) will follow suit with more detailed guidelines and materials in support of the policy this fall. Those two documents are likely to kick off what many believe will be a busy couple of years at the state and federal levels in determining how driverless vehicles will take the roads and the complex policy changes that may be needed to accommodate them. But while many states anxiously await that guidance, a couple are already making moves to accelerate the autonomous future in significant ways.

NHTSA Weighs In

Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an update to a 2013 preliminary statement of policy concerning automated vehicles. In the update, NHTSA recognized for the first time that “the rapid development of emerging automation technologies means that partially and fully automated vehicles are nearing the point at which widespread deployment is feasible.”

Furthermore, the agency acknowledged that a “rigorous testing regime” is “essential to the safe deployment of such vehicles” and to “help policymakers at all levels make informed decisions about deployment.”

NHTSA has promised by this July they will propose best-practice guidance to the autonomous vehicle industry, which they note plays a key role by conducting testing and providing data establishing the safety benefits of automation technologies.

NHTSA has also committed to working with states to “craft and propose model policy guidance that helps policymakers address issues in both the testing and the wider operational deployment of vehicles at advanced stages of automation and offers a nationally consistent approach to autonomous vehicles.”

Guidance from AAMVA Also Expected

This fall, following the release of the model policy guidance, a group NHTSA has been working with very closely—the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA)—reportedly will issue a more comprehensive report that supports the guidance, provides some research, explains the benefits of the policy and identifies some of the challenges states are likely to face.

According to Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor of law and engineering at the University of South Carolina and an expert on laws concerning self-driving vehicles, the work of NHTSA and AAMVA reflects a desire by regulators and developers to move beyond the “first generation” autonomous vehicle legislation approved in a number of states that has to some degree held back rapidly accelerating innovations in the field. Legislatures in some states are declining to enact similar laws as they await the new guidance, Smith said.

Next generation legislation appears likely to focus not just on R&D and testing but on allowing actual deployment of autonomous vehicles on open roads and in a variety of controlled settings, including localized shuttles, robotic taxis and truck platoons, for example. Smith believes even with the new guidance on the way, developers of autonomous technologies are likely to continue to seek targeted laws in specific jurisdictions that help them facilitate their state-specific work in testing and deploying such technologies.

Michigan Could Be One of the First States to Formally Legalize Driverless Cars

Legislation introduced last month in Michigan could be one of the first second generation autonomous vehicle policies and help the birthplace of the U.S. automotive industry regain its competitive edge, Government Technology’s Future Structure reported last week.

Senate Bill 995, offered by Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall and others, would allow open operation of autonomous vehicles beyond restricted testing to allow real-world development for all conditions. It would also authorize vehicle platoons and on-demand automated fleet networks for efficiency in delivery and transportation and create the Michigan Council on Future Mobility. Three companion bills (SB 996, 997 and 998) would establish standards for the on-demand vehicle networks, authorize the creation of the American Center for Mobility and extend liability protections to licensed mechanics who work on autonomous technology.

In a press release, Kowall said Michigan’s existing 2014 autonomous vehicles law is out of date and hurting the state’s competitiveness.

“The law is becoming more outdated day by day as technology advances and other states seek the new automotive industry for themselves,” Kowall said. “Michigan’s dominance in auto research and development is under attack from several states and countries who desire to supplant our leadership in transportation. We can’t let that happen.”

The Michigan bills have been referred to the Senate Committee on Economic Development and International Investment.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation (HB 7027) in April that allows for the operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads “by any person holding a valid driver license, without the need to be designated by an autonomous vehicle manufacturer for testing purposes, and without any testing. The physical presence of an operator is no longer required,” according a legislative analysis.

Pennsylvania is another state looking to move ahead on autonomous vehicles. But the focus of SB 1268, introduced last month, appears to still be controlled testing rather than operation of such vehicles. The state recently created an Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force that will develop guidance for the state department of transportation. The task force is comprised of state, federal and private industry officials from PennDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, AAA, Uber Technologies and Carnegie Mellon University, among others. The university has been at the forefront of autonomous vehicle research for many years and the city of Pittsburgh is one of seven finalists in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge seeking to receive up to $40 million in funding to integrate innovative technologies, including self-driving cars.   

The Road Ahead for States and Autonomous Vehicles

Bryant Walker Smith, the law professor and autonomous vehicle law expert, points to a variety of potential subjects of regulation in the autonomous vehicle realm that could keep states and other jurisdictions very busy in the years ahead. They include departments of motor vehicles, highway patrol, departments of transportation, departments of insurance, municipalities, developers, users and owners. Regulation could be needed in areas like vehicle registration, driver licensing, driving infraction laws, and crashes.

In his recent paper on “How Government Can Promote Automated Driving,” Smith also notes that in addition to legal and regulatory efforts, governments can engage in administrative strategies including working to prepare government agencies, prepare infrastructure, leverage procurement and advocate for safety mandates.

Getting states all on the same page with regards to autonomous vehicles may present additional challenges. Interstate cooperation, which could be an outcome of a model state law and which would be important in ensuring that autonomous vehicles and their users could travel between states, could be facilitated through compacts, coordination, comity and reciprocity agreements, Smith said.

As Tracy Woodard of Nissan told state legislators attending last month's 6th Annual CSG Transportation Leaders Policy Academy in Washington, D.C.: “As auto manufacturers, we don’t like patchworks.”

Woodard also advised “First do no harm. Let’s not put anything that prohibits innovation out there.”

As the process of establishing model policies at the state level progresses, there appear to be significant opportunities for organizations like the Council of State Governments to support the adoption and standardization of such policies around the country. Through programs like the policy resolution process, Shared State Legislation and the National Center for Interstate Compacts, CSG may be able to assist in promoting best practices to ensure the safe and efficient deployment of autonomous vehicle technologies.

Further Reading