USDOT releases Federal Automated Vehicles Policy guidelines for autonomous vehicles

Updated Sep 21, 2016

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTSA) has issued the long-awaited Federal Automated Vehicles Policy covering guidance for automated/autonomous vehicles on the nation’s highways.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-8-46-05-amThe 116-page document, available here, covers four main categories: Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles; Model State Policy; NHTSA’s Current Regulatory Tools; and Modern Regulatory Tools.

“As the digital era increasingly reaches deeper into transportation, our task at the U.S. Department of Transportation is not only to keep pace, but to ensure public safety while establishing a strong foundation such that the rules of the road can be known, understood and responded to by industry and the public,” says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

He says the department consulted with industry leaders, experts in the field, state governments, the traveling public, safety advocates and various other stakeholders in developing the policy. The next step is seeking more public input.

“Going forward, we will conduct significant public outreach to inform our next update to this policy,” Foxx says. “We very much look forward to the dialogues that will emerge in the coming weeks and months and thank you in advance for helping us.”

NHTSA has issued a 60-day request for comment period on the policy, available at www.nhtsa.og/AV and in the docket of the policy, labeled NHTSA-2016-0090. The agency says it will analyze these comments and “address significant comments” in the next update of the policy.

Following the release of the policy, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says the guidelines are necessary during the “rapid pace of innovation” for this technology.

“There must be a consistent framework that helps guide the development, testing and delivery of autonomous vehicles to the marketplace without stifling innovation and the creativity of the free market,” he says. “I look forward to more thoroughly reviewing NHTSA’s guidelines and working with stakeholders in both industry and government on this important issue.”

The following are executive summaries of the main four categories covered in the policy:

Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles

The Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles (or “Guidance”) section outlines best practices for the safe pre-deployment design, development and testing of HAVs prior to commercial sale or operation on public roads. This Guidance defines “deployment” as the operation of an HAV by members of the public who are not the employees or agents of the designer, developer, or manufacturer of that HAV.

This Guidance is intended to be an initial step to further guide the safe testing and deploy- ment of HAVs. It sets DOT’s expectations of industry by providing reasonable practices and procedures that manufacturers, suppliers, and other entities should follow in the immediate short term to test and deploy HAVs. The data generated from these activities should be shared in a way that allows government, industry, and the public to increase their learning and understanding as technology evolves but protects legitimate privacy and competitive interests.

Model State Policy

Today, a motorist can drive across state lines without a worry more complicated than, “did the speed limit change?” The integration of HAVs should not change that ability. Similarly, a manufacturer should be able to focus on developing a single HAV fleet rather than 50 different versions to meet individual state requirements.

State governments play an important role in facilitating HAVs, ensuring they are safely deployed, and promoting their life-saving benefits. The Model State Policy confirms that States retain their traditional responsibilities for vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and motor vehicle insurance and liability regimes. Since 2014, DOT has partnered with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) to explore HAV policies. This collaboration was one of the bases for the Model State Policy framework presented here and identifies where new issues fit within the existing federal/state structure. The shared objective is to ensure the establishment of a consistent national framework rather than a patchwork of incompatible laws.

NHTSA’s Current Regulatory Tools

NHTSA will continue to exercise its available regulatory authority over HAVs using its existing regulatory tools: interpretations, exemptions, notice-and-comment rulemak- ing, and defects and enforcement authority. NHTSA has the authority to identify safety defects, allowing the Agency to recall vehicles or equipment that pose an unreasonable risk to safety even when there is no applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS).

To aid regulated entities and the public in understanding the use of these tools (including the introduction of new HAVs), NHTSA has prepared a new information and guidance document. This document provides instructions, practical guidance, and assistance to entities seeking to employ those tools. Furthermore, NHTSA has stream- lined its review process and is committing to issuing simple HAV-related interpretations in 60 days, and ruling on simple HAV-related exemption requests in six months.3 NHTSA will publish the section—which has wider application beyond HAVs—in the Federal Register for public review, comment and use.

New Tools and Authorities

The more effective use of NHTSA’s existing regulatory tools will help to expedite the safe introduction and regulation of new HAVs. However, because today’s governing statutes and regulations were developed when HAVs were only a remote notion, those tools may not be sufficient to ensure that HAVs are introduced safely, and to realize the full safety promise of new technologies. The speed with which HAVs are advancing, combined with the complexity and novelty of these innovations, threatens to outpace the Agency’s conventional regulatory processes and capabilities.

This challenge requires DOT to examine whether the way DOT has addressed safety for the last 50 years should be expanded to realize the safety potential of automated vehicles over the next 50 years.

Therefore, this section identifies potential new tools, authorities and regulatory structures that could aid the safe and appropriately expeditious deployment of new technologies by enabling the Agency to be more nimble and flexible. There will always be an important role for standards and testing protocols based on careful scientific research and developed through the give-and-take of an open public process. It is likely that additional regulatory tools along with new expertise and research will be needed to allow the Agency to more quickly address safety challenges and speed the responsible deployment of lifesaving technology.