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January 07, 2019

Congress Fails to Enact First-Ever Significant Federal Legislation on Autonomous Vehicles

Despite hopeful last-minute efforts, the 115th Congress failed to pass the AV Start Act, a bipartisan bill that would have been the first significant federal legislation on autonomous vehicles in the U.S. Meanwhile, vehicles with increasing levels of automation are making their way onto roads across the country and individual states are passing their own laws.

During end-of-year budget negotiations that focused on the border wall dispute, the AV bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, was scuttled in part by Senate Democrats who reportedly had objections to provisions related to “privacy, safety and federal preemption.” Industry members had expressed their support for the bill.

Despite the failure to reach agreement on this particular bill, autonomous vehicles regulation is one of the few areas where a bipartisan consensus seems achievable. But with the House now in the hands of Democrats, it’s likely lawmakers will have to start at square one in putting together a new autonomous vehicles bill, something that could take months or, more likely, years.

Regulation Is Occurring at the State Level

With no federal law on the horizon for now, the AV revolution will be born on the streets of Pennsylvania, Arizona and other states that have welcomed Silicon Valley’s innovation with open arms. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states now have autonomous vehicle legislation. The bills range in restrictiveness – and by topic.

While the AV Start Act focused on autonomous passenger vehicles, autonomous vehicle technology will have far more wide-ranging effects than your morning commute. For example, some states have regulated driver-assistive truck platooning technology. This AV technology would not remove drivers from trucks (at least at first) but would allow a group of trucks to move together as a unit, reducing air resistance and significantly lowering fuel costs. And executive orders in Arizona have greenlighted pilot programs, such as one for tiny Nuro cars which have no drivers but ferry groceries from the store to residents’ homes at low speed.

The Future for Federal AV Regulation

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has done little to restrict autonomous vehicle development or use, largely leaving the job to individual states. This trend is likely to continue through the end of the Trump administration, with minimal weigh-in from federal regulators.

Recent guidance on “AV 3.0” from the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggests that future federal safety standards “will need to be more flexible and responsive, technology-neutral, and performance-oriented to accommodate rapid technological innovation.” Case in point? Those little grocery delivery cars in Arizona have rearview mirrors, even though a human driver can’t fit inside.

According to the NHTSA, one of the areas that needs more flexible standards is testing for Level 3 autonomous vehicles, which allow the driver to completely cede control of the vehicle under certain conditions. Audi opted out of including such Level 3 automation in its consumer sales for U.S. markets, despite including it as an option on the European model of its new A8. Reportedly, Audi was in part concerned with “uncertainty about how federal and state laws apply to this system[.]”

Industry members can expect to hear more from the NHTSA over the next couple of years, but it’s unlikely that the agency will promulgate regulations with significant impacts for manufacturers or companies that operate trucking fleets. The NHTSA needs federal legislation that updates the framework of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which was enacted in 1966 and did not anticipate current technology. In the meantime, depending on where you live, the car in the lane next to you may be a robot.

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