The Buck Stops Where? Exploring Who Has the Final Say in Driverless Vehicle Rules

Dozens of experts and elected officials in all levels of government are working to craft the future of autonomous transportation.

by Jared Stonesifer, Beaver County Times, Pa. / September 21, 2016
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(TNS) — The future is here in the form of self-driving cars, and western Pennsylvania is at the forefront as a testing ground of the new technology.

It’s been nearly two years since Uber hired dozens of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to develop the technology that drives autonomous vehicles. That technology became a reality last week when Uber began offering its very first rides in autonomous vehicles in downtown Pittsburgh.

Despite those advances, not everyone is thrilled.

Both the state and federal governments have released statements in the last week saying self-driving cars need more oversight and testing before they become widespread, and the two are jockeying over who should have the final word when it comes to policy and regulations.

A handful of committees and commissions are already assembled to study the new technology. PennDOT formed a committee earlier this year while the U.S. Department of Transportation has a similar entity.

Dozens of experts and elected officials in both levels of government are working to craft the future of autonomous transportation. But who has the final say when the reports are released and recommendations made?

What the Feds Say

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday unveiled a 100-page report, the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, which serves as an “ambitious approach to accelerate the (autonomous vehicle) revolution.”

The policy is an “important early step” in laying the groundwork for rules and regulations governing the technology, according to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Despite that, the policy is only a “guidance” rather than a set-in-stone frame of rules.

The report outlines a detailed approach to governing self-driving cars. It includes a 15-point safety assessment to “set clear expectations for manufacturers developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies.”

Perhaps most important, the lengthy report has a section that lays out a “clear distinction between federal and state responsibilities” when it comes to regulating the technology.

That section also contains recommendations from the federal government to the states in regard to what kinds of policies and rules the states should focus on, “with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles.”

States will still have the power to issue driver’s licenses, collect registration fees, make rules governing inspections and oversee insurance laws.

But when it comes to setting the foundation for the rules that will govern this emerging industry, the federal government is trying to make clear that it’s in charge.

“(The federal) DOT strongly encourages states to allow DOT alone to regulate the performance of (autonomous driving) technology and vehicles,” the policy said. “If a state does pursue … performance-related regulations, that state should consult with (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and base its efforts on the Vehicle Performance Guidance provided in this policy.”

What Harrisburg Says

Uber has been touting its driverless technology in Pittsburgh lately by offering free rides to residents, but the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is telling the company to pump the brakes when it comes to charging a fee for those rides.

In a statement released late last week, the PUC said it encourages innovation and advances in technology. Despite that, Uber has not applied for or received the necessary approval it needs from the PUC to start charging people for rides in autonomous vehicles.

“Any business offering transportation services to the general public for compensation must secure proper authority from the PUC before beginning that service, and clearly demonstrate the technical ability to operate safely,” the PUC said in a statement. “To date, no entity has applied for such authority in Pennsylvania, and the commission has not authorized any use of fully autonomous vehicles for transportation services that fall under the jurisdiction of the PUC.”

PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said Tuesday there is a “very broad structure for transportation oversight, which includes many federal and state agencies.”

He reaffirmed that any company that wants to engage in transportation services must first get permission from the PUC, something Uber hasn’t done.

But when it comes to which governmental agency has the final say?

“We expect this to be an ongoing state and national conversation, and we look forward to a vigorous national discussion about innovations in public services,” he said.

Uber has not charged local residents for rides, and it hasn’t given any indication it plans to do so any time soon.

Despite that, the PUC has a “statutory obligation” to ensure autonomous vehicles operate in a safe and reliable manner, the agency said, and new rules will “undoubtedly be needed” as the new technology rises in popularity and usage.

Those new rules will likely be crafted by oversight committees like the Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, a group of educators and industry stakeholders brought together by PennDOT.

In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also starting to develop its own set of guidelines for autonomous vehicles. Despite that, it’s important for companies like Uber to allow time for these regulations to be crafted, the PUC said.

In a statement released Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf said the federal guidelines are “in-line with work underway since June by the Pennsylvania Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force.”

“Both we and the federal government agree that safety is paramount as we set policies that encourage and guide the dramatic mobility changes offered by the rapidly developing automated vehicle technology,” Wolf said.

The state task force will now use the federal guidelines to craft its own rules, but PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said in the statement that the new federal policy “does not impact testing now underway in Pittsburgh.”

In addition, the Autonomous Vehicle Task Force is working to deliver policy recommendations to Richards in the fall while, at the same time, the state Legislature is crafting a bill that would allow PennDOT to implement its own policies on automated vehicle testing.

If those policies differ from the federal guidelines, it’s not clear which laws or regulations supersede the other, although it’s important to note federal laws typically trump state laws.

Regardless, the PUC said a continuing conversation needs to take place between state and federal lawmakers, transportation and insurance company executives and other stakeholders.

It’s likely that the PUC will continue to monitor Uber’s activities very carefully. Besides the statement issued last week, the PUC in April fined Uber $11.4 million for operating a transportation business without a license, the largest fine in the history of the PUC.

A representative from Uber did not return a request for comment.

©2016 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.