NHTSA Will Give States Autonomy on Self-Driving Rules

20 June 2016 Dashboard Insights Blog

In a blog post last month, we covered the announcement of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbyist group with the aim of removing any legal or regulatory hurdles that might slow the development or deployment of self-driving, fully autonomous vehicles. The members of the coalition include some of the biggest players in the quickly developing autonomous vehicle industry, including Google, Ford, Volvo, Lyft, and Uber. One of the biggest fears for the coalition members and other industry participants is the creation of a patchwork of inconsistent state laws and regulations.

At an automotive conference held earlier this month in a Detroit suburb, Mark Rosekind, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, explained that NHTSA will not stand in the way of states passing laws and regulations to address self-driving vehicles.

Based on reporting from the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Rosekind said,

“What the states actually implement is their call.” He added that NHTSA will have “no say” in what states want to do.

In July NHTSA will announce new federal guidelines regarding the deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles. The new guidelines will include a model policy for state regulation. Given the planned policy guidance, saying that NHTSA will have “no say” in what the states decide to do is probably too strong. Presumably, NHTSA hopes that many states will follow its guidance. However, Mr. Rosekind’s remarks clearly indicate the agency’s belief that states should have significant autonomy in their regulation of autonomous driving.

If states are allowed to regulate autonomous driving with little interference from the federal government, will it inevitably lead to a patchwork of inconsistent state laws and regulations? There is evidence of an inconsistent patchwork that has already started to develop.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws to address autonomous driving. But no state has yet adopted laws or regulations to expressly permit the operation of self-driving vehicles other than for testing purposes. Much to the dissatisfaction of Google and other industry participants, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed regulations that would require an autonomous vehicle to have a licensed human driver that could take over operation of the vehicle at any time if necessary.

On the other hand, Michigan has proposed legislation that would expressly allow, among other things, the operation of an autonomous vehicle without a human driver. The proposed Michigan legislation would also legalize platooning—an automated technology designed to improve efficiency by allowing vehicles to travel closely together. If the legislation is adopted, Michigan could become the first state to expressly legalize the operation of fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

We will follow up with further updates when NHTSA announces its new autonomous vehicle guidelines next month and with other noteworthy self-driving developments as they arise. Stay tuned.

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