By Mollie Cohen D’Agostino and Dan Sperling (December 18, 2018)
This morning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced they are streamlining the permit approval process for automated vehicles (AV). To put this new ruling in context, the U.S. Senate re-opened negotiations on the AV START Act, a bill that could become the first federal legislation governing AVs. With self-driving cars already on the road around the world, including in 24 U.S. cities, Congress is long overdue in taking action.
But even after today’s ruling, and even if AV START passes, it will not likely be enough to ensure that AV technology benefits public safety, the environment, and the well-being of our communities—including privacy and cybersecurity protections. It will take strategic policies across all levels of government to achieve our vision of a shared, electric, and automated future.
The first step is defining good AV governance. A new issue paper from the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy and the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program explores this topic. The paper’s authors Austin Brown and Tiffany Hoang, and Greg Rodriguez outline a set of policy principles that should underlie AV governance, including prioritizing safety; clearly defining federal, state, and local roles; and better managing AV data. Each of these principles can help ensure that AVs are deployed sustainably and responsibly.
There are multiple concrete actions that Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) could take to enhance AV safety without overstepping their authority or stifling innovation. Both have taken a largely “hands-off” approach. Current law allows each vehicle manufacturer to exempt up to 2,500 vehicles from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) review process. Today’s ruling will mean the agency will post petitions for exemption without a complete review.
Making exemptions easier is not the only path forward. The USDOT could also update the FMVSS to eliminate requirements that will be obsolete for fully self-driving cars (like including a steering wheel and brakes) while adding requirements that will become newly necessary (like including sensors that enable AVs to communicate with “smart” traffic signals). These new requirements will be more effective if they are flexible and performance-based. USDOT could also establish protocols for recalling AVs in the event that a cybersecurity flaw or other software defect is identified.
So far AV policy guidance published by the department emphasizes the importance of AV safety, but delegates much responsibility to AV manufacturers through voluntary self-certifications. In theory, AV START would begin to address this problem by instructing federal agencies to move faster in modernizing safety standards. AV START may also make safety certifications mandatory. The UC Davis paper suggests that future legislation should build on AV START by including provisions to promote AV cybersecurity alongside physical safety.
Defining federal, state, and local roles
Current AV policy is advancing most rapidly at the sub-national levels. Twenty-nine states have AV policies on the books. Cities like Boston and Portland, OR have set policy to dictate when and where AV testing and deployment can occur. In many ways, state and local leadership is a good thing. Policy experimentation can happen more readily in states and cities than within our large federal bureaucracy. State and local leadership also ensures that governance is tailored to regional needs.
But in the absence of federal policy, conflicts of authority among different levels of government can create uncertainty. For instance, California requires that AVs record data 30 seconds before and 5 seconds after an accident. The FMVSS only require 5 seconds of pre-accident recording. Rules for assigning liability in the event of an AV crash also vary considerably from state to state, making it unclear how AV auto insurance will vary between states.
Policymakers must decide who is in charge of what. Vehicle safety standards are set at the national level to make compliance easier for manufacturers. But it may be more appropriate for states to oversee on-road AV testing. Regions and municipalities will be at the front lines of facilitating partnerships among AV manufacturers, public transit operators, and others. Local agencies are also better positioned to determine whether certain AV behaviors—such as cruising streets empty instead of parking—should be permissible.
Managing AV data
Data on AV driving behavior, travel routes, and other elements of operation can inform regulation, support technological improvement, and increase public confidence. But these benefits must be balanced with privacy and competitiveness concerns. Policymakers should work with experts to design best practices for information-sharing. Public agencies could then offer priority funding for AV research and pilot projects that yield useful and usable data while respecting these practices.
Good Governance is Smart Governance, Not Less Governance
Opponents of AV START and similar bills have argued that additional legislation will just create red tape. But insufficient policy frameworks are just as problematic as overly burdensome ones. Today’s haphazard patchwork of federal, state, and local AV policies is difficult for stakeholders to navigate. Uncertainty around the future of AV governance discourages investment and may delay deployment timelines without ensuring the safety of the technology.
The solution is smart governance, not less governance. Regulation can be flexible and performance-based without being “hands-off”. The private sector deserves freedom to innovate, yes, but within reasonable boundaries that minimize safety risks and achieve equitable distribution of benefits. It is possible to set policies that are comprehensive and clear enough to maintain consistency across jurisdictions, but still respect state and local authority.
For more information, see the associated Issue Paper titled, Federal, State and Local Governance of Automated Vehicles and a shorter two-page Policy Brief: The Road to Successful Governance of Automated Vehicles that summarizes the issue paper.
This post was originally posted online at Forbes.