Are Voluntary Safety Standards the Way Forward for the CAV Industry?

Recently, I wrote about the prospects for federal legislation addressing connected and autonomous vehicles. While the subject will be taken up in the new Congress, the failed push for a bill at the end of 2018 is an indication of the steep hill any CAV legislation will have to overcome. Despite the lack of federal legislation, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been active in this space. In October 2018, the Department issued Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0, DOT’s most comprehensive guide to date outlining their plan for the roll-out of CAVs. The document indicates that the department expects to prioritize working with industry to create a set of voluntary safety standards over the development of mandatory regulations.

Given the Trump administration’s broad emphasis on deregulation as a driver of economic growth, this emphasis on voluntary standards is unsurprising. A handful of consumer groups focused on auto safety have raised the alarm over this strategy, arguing that mandatory regulations are the only way to both ensure safety and make the general public confident in automated driving technology.

The remainder of this post will discuss the effectiveness of voluntary safety standards relative to mandatory regulation for the CAV industry, and consider the prospects of each going forward. While little information is available about the response to either option in the CAV field, I will seek to draw lessons from experience with regulation of the traditional automobile industry.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has undergone a dramatic strategic shift over its half-century existence. In its early days, NHTSA was primarily devoted to promulgating technology-forcing regulations that sought to drive innovation across the industry. Jerry Mashaw and David Harfst have documented the agency’s shift away from adopting regulations in favor of an aggressive recall policy for defective products in the 1980s. As they write, the agency then returned to a regulatory policy in the 21st century. However, rather than attempt to force technology, they chose to mandate technologies that were already in use across most of the auto industry. While these new standards still took the form of mandatory regulation, they operated as virtually voluntary standards because they mandated technologies the industry had largely already adopted on its own. Mashaw and Harfst found that this shift was essentially a trade-off of slower adoption of new safety technology, and potentially lost lives, in favor of greater legitimacy in the eyes of the courts and industry. Particularly given the rise of pre-enforcement judicial review of regulations, this shift may be seen as a defensive mechanism to allow more regulations to survive court challenges.

Even as NHTSA has pulled back from technology forcing regulations, there has been no sustained public push for more aggressive auto safety regulation. This may be because the number of traffic fatalities has been fallen slightly in recent decades. This shift is likely due more to a reduction in drunk driving than improved technology. With studies showing that the public is particularly wary of CAV adoption, it remains to be seen whether NHTSA will seek to return to its technology-forcing origins. While the auto industry has traditionally preferred voluntary adoption of new technologies, it may be the case that government mandates would help ease public concern about CAV safety, speed the adoption of this new technology, and ultimately save lives.