To state the obvious: The future of autonomous vehicle regulation is fluid. At present, the federal government regulates the vehicle itself—its construction, composition and reliability, while state governments regulate driver competence.
However, the increased integration of autonomous-vehicle technology into the driving task itself has made distinguishing the driver from the vehicle difficult. As a result, there is overlap between state and federal law in addition to differences between states, leaving automotive companies without a clear standard.
Fortunately, federal regulators are adjusting the rules to accommodate autonomous vehicles within the existing legal framework. On May 22, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration published advanced notices of proposed rulemaking to seek public comment on possible rule changes to the FMVSS and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Together, the two sets of regulations govern personal and commercial autonomous-vehicle construction.
New standards are necessary because, as vehicles become more advanced, human controls required by federal law will be unnecessary. Not only that, but they will be a burden to innovative design. Any effort to ease human-centric vehicle requirements, if enacted, will bolster the development of vehicle uses not centered on individual use.
NHTSA requests comments “on the suitability of various approaches that could be used to address compliance verification challenges that exist for crash-avoidance standards that either (1) require a manual control; or (2) specify the use of manual controls in a compliance test procedure.” Simultaneously, while rulemaking progresses slowly, a full overhaul of the current system could be spurred by new congressional legislation, which is, at present, uncertain.
U.S. Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Gary Peters (D-MI) are working together to reintroduce bipartisan legislation to create a federal regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles. The renewed initiative comes in the wake of last year’s failed effort to pass the AV START Act. That bill, which would have, among other things, increased the number of NHTSA safety exemptions and spurred an autonomous directed update to the FMVSS, stalled due to opposition from several Democratic senators over privacy and security concerns.
Even though last year’s effort fell short, the bill enjoyed strong support in the House, where it passed unanimously via a voice vote. However, in the 116th Congress, with Democrats in control, expect an enhanced focus on vehicle safety and oversight of manufacturers.
“We are going to deal with autonomous vehicles, the AV START Act and the way we think about how people and goods are transported around the country,” Wicker said. “Congress got close on this last year … we will see how far we get this time. There are wrinkles that need to be ironed out, but I think we can get there.”