WASHINGTON, DC – Over the last several months, an influx of companies have announced plans to pursue the creation and manufacture of self-driving cars. GM, Daimler, Volvo, Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Audi and BMW are only a fraction of global automakers that have already announced their intention to pursue technology making some vehicle models fully or partially autonomous. And as they often do, the federal government has had to play catch up in taking a position on this emerging technology and where they fit in to facilitate the entry of autonomous vehicles onto American roads.
Recently, the Department of Transportation gave good indication of where they stand with the issuance of federal guidelines released on September 20. The guidance included a 15-point safety assessment for automakers to design, develop and test self-driving cars. The framework also includes options for federal transportation regulators to authorize automated vehicles under existing law, as well as lists legislative or regulatory changes that could be needed "as the technology evolves and is deployed more widely." In addition, automakers will have to document to federal regulators how they're addressing ethical considerations like whether to program a car to hit another vehicle rather than a pedestrian.
Importantly, the policy did make clear that federal and state roles needed to be clearly defined and insisted that the goal was to avoid fifty individual state standards thus creating a “patchwork” of autonomous vehicle laws. Instead, the guidance suggested that the state’s role should focus more on traditional functions as they have in the past; specifically licensing and liability.
A number of states, however, have already begun taking steps to address the technology. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Nevada was the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles in 2011. Since 2012, at least 34 states and D.C. have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles. As more and more automakers announce intentions to also utilize the technology, the number of states pursuing legislation on the issue will likely grow.
Critics of the guidance say that the Department of Transportation (DoT) needs to establish formal and enforceable regulations governing self-driving vehicles. However, DoT countered saying that going through the traditional rulemaking process to establish federal regulations would not keep up with new technology and they needed to remain flexible to address new concerns as they emerge. Supporters of the guidance agreed, saying that the policy gives automakers the green light to be innovative, but still keeps safety at the forefront through its recommended safety assessment. In addition, DoT announced that it intends to update the policy each year in order for it to remain up-to-date and reflect the current technology and environment.
It appears through the issuance of guidance rather than regulations that the role of the federal government may lean heavily on oversight and enforcement. In fact, the guidance suggested that DoT may ask Congress for more oversight powers to achieve this. Just how and to what extent the federal government will be involved with this technology still very much remains to be seen. The question will be more closely examined over the course of the next few months with congressional hearings already in the works likely taking place during the lame duck session of Congress which kicks off after the general election in November.
Many people consider autonomous vehicles to be a significant part of the future of the automotive industry. For motorcycle riders, they too understand that self-driving vehicles will be on the road in the future, but have started to voice concerns from the perspective of concern for their safety. While not opposed to autonomous vehicles, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) maintains that federal authorities must require robust testing with regard to motorcycle recognition and responsiveness. Given their smaller profile on the road, it’s a valid concern for many bikers. In addition, the MRF insists DoT must ensure that electronic security systems have strong standards to ensure safety and security precautions eliminate risks to motorcyclists. In addition, clear liability of fault must be established when it comes to crashes, and in doing so, motorcyclists should not face unfair advantages.
The Motorcycle Riders Foundation plans to file comments on the DoT guidance echoing their concerns voiced above.
To see the DoT announcement and review the federal guidance and fact sheets, click on the following link: