US Congress poised to adopt regulatory regime for autonomous vehicles

The chairmen of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce committees have begun sketching the basic contours of a new regulatory regime to govern the safe testing and operation of driverless cars, and last week the House held hearings on more than a dozen Republican-authored bills, including a suite of proposals to expand the number and period of safety waivers for the testing of more experimental cars on US roads.

All told, the House is currently weighing 14 bills related to autonomous vehicles. They include:

The Let NHTSA Enforce Autonomous Vehicle Driving Regulations (LEAD’R) ACT, which would establish the sole authority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the regulation of autonomous vehicles. The proposal comes as many states have begun charting their own sometimes competing safety and liability frameworks.

The Practical Automated Vehicle Exemptions Act, which would increase the allowable number of experimental vehicles that may be exempted from particular safety standards.

The Renewing Opportunities for Automated Vehicle Development Act, which would increase the allowed waiver period for which vehicles may be exempted from particular safety standards.

The Expanding Exemptions to Enable More Public Trust Act, which would define basic safety thresholds for exemptions as providing overall safety at least equal to the overall safety of non-exempt vehicles.

The Increasing Information and Notification to Foster Openness Regarding Automated Vehicle Matters to States Act, which would require the Secretary of Transportation to notify states of exemptions of experimental AVs from federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS).

The Automated Driving System Cybersecurity Advisory Council, which would establish a cybersecurity counsel within the Department of Transportation to make recommendations regarding a cybersecurity framework for AV systems.

The Sharing Automated Vehicle Records with Everyone for Safety Act, which would create a federal advisory committee to share safety and tech data comprised of representatives from SAE International, whose five tiers of autonomy NHTSA has adopted as its own; AV components and car makers; the insurance industry; AV dealers; AV repair; and academia with robotics expertise.

The Highly Automated Vehicle Pre-Market Approval Reduces Opportunities for More People to Travel Safely Act, which would bar NHTSA from requiring pre-market approval of vehicle types and designs before a manufacturer introduces a new AV into commerce.

The Guarding Automakers Against Unfair Advantages Reported in Public Documents (GUARD) Act, which would classify reported safety and technology data as confidential and privileged trade secrets.

The Managing Government Efforts to Minimize Autonomous Vehicle Obstruction Act, which would direct the Federal Trade Commission and NHTSA to enter into a memorandum of understanding designed to limit duplicative oversight between the two bodies.

The Designating Each Car’s Automation Level Act, which would require manufacturers of autonomous vehicles to display the level of autonomy (there are five, the fifth being fully autonomous) on stickers placed on motor vehicles.

Historically, the federal government has regulated the vehicle while leaving the regulation of the driver to the states. In the case of autonomous vehicles, though, the vehicle is the driver, allowing that once-clear delineation of regulatory authority to become blurred. Increasingly, states have begun to adopt specific safety standards and set strict reporting requirements for the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles.

Most of the bills before the House seek to establish clarity for auto makers and technologists by preempting the emerging patchwork of conflicting state regulations. In 2017, 33 state legislatures introduced self-driving bills and last week the governor of Washington State signed an executive order to green light autonomous vehicles on public roads. (In total, 23 states and Washington, DC, have adopted some regulatory framework, either through legislation or executive order.)