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U.S. DOT Lays Out Role for States in Regulating Self-Driving Cars

The administration has offered up a model policy for states to follow when regulating self-driving cars.

States need to start paving the way for self-driving cars now, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That was the main message behind a conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20, where Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx drew lines in the sand for what the federal government is responsible for and what the states are responsible for when it comes to the new technology. A document from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also suggested several issues that states should begin clarifying.

That includes issues of crash liability, regulatory language and how to approach distracted driving. Meanwhile, NHTSA asserted its authority over safety standards as well as performance of the vehicles. In order to maintain flexibility as the technology develops, the agency wants to implement a 15-point safety assessment for new cars that focuses on standards instead of solutions.

Other parts of the document will also be subject to annual updates, Foxx said.

“We intend for this policy to be a living document within the department,” he said during the event. “It is effective today, but we expect ongoing dialog about it.”

One big issue NHTSA wants states to address: the use of regulatory language that points to humans. NHTSA has already clarified for federal purposes that a car’s software can be considered a “driver.” Now the agency is recommending that states do the same, which will mean combing through scores of policies and codes.

In fact, the agency is calling on states to go through a lot of different policies looking for unnecessary barriers standing in the way of automated driving — traffic laws, licensing, registration, insurance and more.

The issue of insurance is largely unsettled as well. Though some automakers have said they’ll take responsibility for any crashes their software causes, others have not. That leaves the question of who pays who up in the air.

To answer those questions more effectively, the guidelines call for states to identify a lead agency on automated driving regulation and set up a task force bringing together representatives from offices of information technology, transportation, law enforcement and other relevant areas.

Generally, the document said, states will be responsible for:

  • licensing and registration;
  • traffic laws and rules;
  • conduction of safety inspections; and
  • insurance and liability matters.
NHTSA will be responsible for:

  • the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards;
  • recalls and other enforcement measures;
  • educating the public on safety; and
  • writing performance guidelines for industry.
Mark Rosekind, administrator of NHTSA, specifically noted that the document allows a path for fully self-driving cars — a path that diverges markedly from the one California is headed in. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has taken some of the most advanced steps in regulating automated driving, proposing a set of rules this year that would require a licensed human to be able to take over driving at a moment’s notice.

If made permanent, that setup would kill many of the uses for autonomous vehicles that the industry — and some of the speakers at the DOT’s event in Washington — have spoken so excitedly about. Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, highlighted the inherent safety advantages of removing the ability of drunk people to drive.

As if to underscore her speech about the death of her teenage son at the hands of an impaired driver, an ambulance screamed by while she was reciting a string of crash statistics.

“Autonomous vehicle technology, and specifically the driverless cars, can absolutely be a game changer,” she continued after the sirens faded.

Henry Claypool, policy director for the University of California, San Francisco’s Community Living Policy Center, talked about how the vehicles could bring mobility to people who only have limited access to it right now. That’s also a use for self-driving cars that would be hampered if government required humans to be able to take over driving.

“The real costs range from not being able to get and hold a job to not being able to pick up your kids from school to the civil rights implications of being segregated away from a society simply because [you aren’t able to drive],” he said.

Rosekind emphasized that the NHTSA document provides a path for states to allow fully self-driving cars, many of which now appear set to start hitting the road in the early 2020s.

“California’s [regulation] is a proposal only,” he said. “That’s why this is needed now, because California has yet to fully act regulatory.”

The California DMV responded to the release of the document by saying that it worked with NHTSA on the model policy for states and will publish a revision to its draft rules "in the coming weeks." The department will hold a public workshop on the regulations on Oct. 20. 

Bryant Walker Smith, an expert on automated driving policy and a scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, cautioned in a blog post that the public comment process and implementation of the model guidelines may have a big impact on how they affect the deployment of the new technology.

“The model state policy does not bind states,” he wrote. “And some may well decide not to follow it.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.