Regulation of Autonomous Vehicles
Variously referred to as driverless vehicles, self-driving vehicles, and autonomous vehicles, this new technology has been met with some confusion and a lack of clarity as to how it should be regulated. Satisfying the goals of providing a safe transportation network while enabling innovation is not an easy balance to strike.
The American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act has been proposed to provide some clarity and direction; however it has yet to pass. While Congress continues to consider the issue, several states have begun to impose safety-oriented requirements.
A proactive approach by states may ultimately be counter-productive if it results in technology requirements that change across state borders. For example, while California now requires autonomous vehicles to record data 30 seconds prior to and five seconds after a crash, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) require only five seconds of pre-accident recording. In addition, the method for assigning liability for autonomous vehicle crashes vary from state to state. This makes drafting appropriate auto insurance policies difficult.
The FMVSS requires a review process be performed before technology can be accepted for use on the road. However, some of the mandatory safety standards will be obsolete for completely self-driving vehicles, which include the steering wheels and brakes. New requirements will be needed to address use of alternative technology. This includes developing standards for sensors that allow autonomous vehicles to communicate with “smart” traffic signals and related software. It will also be important to address cybersecurity breaches or defects in software.
Revised Federal Agency Requirements
The U.S. Department of Transportation has just finished gathering input on a proposed framework and multimodal approach to safe integration of autonomous vehicles into the nation’s surface transportation system. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recently issued a final regulation to create this interim measure by changing its review process. The new rule eliminates prior requirements that a petition for review must be complete before a summary of the petition is published for public comment. There is also an exemption from vehicle safety standards for 2,500 vehicles provided they are as safe as existing vehicles. This provision will allow manufacturers to beta test vehicles on the road that have never gone through a FMVSS review process.
While the NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator claims the rule improves efficiency and transparency of the process, safety experts are not convinced. The new rules essentially allow the public roadway to serve as a laboratory for new technology. If there are glitches in software, power outages of traffic signals, and poorly calibrated sensors, then motorists, not crash test dummies, will experience any resulting crashes.
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