Calls Grow for Nationwide Regulation of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles

To date, twenty-nine states have enacted legislation related to connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). Eleven governors have issued executive orders designed to set guidelines for and promote the adoption of CAVs. In response to this patchwork of state laws, some experts have argued that the federal government should step in and create a uniform set of safety regulations.

Partially responding to such concerns, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued A Vision for Safety 2.0 in September, 2018. The guidance document contains voluntary guidance for the automotive industry, suggesting best practices for the testing and deployment of CAVs. It also contains a set of safety-related practices for states to consider implementing in legislation.

The NHTSA document is likely to have some effect on the development of safety practices for the testing and deployment of automated vehicles. While not mandatory, the guidance does give the industry some indication of what the federal government is thinking. Some companies may take this document as a sign of what they will be required to do if and when the Congress passes CAV legislation, and begin to prepare for compliance now. Furthermore, this nudge from the federal government could influence state action, as legislators with limited expertise on the subject look to NHTSA for guidance in drafting their CAV bills.

Without new legislation however, the force of NHTSA’s guidance will be blunted. No manufacturer is required to follow the agency’s views, and state legislatures are free to continue passing conflicting laws. Such conflicts among states could make it difficult to design a vehicle that is able to meet all state standards and travel freely throughout the country. To date, this has not been an acute problem because CAVs, where they are deployed, operate only within a tightly limited range. As use of these vehicles expands however, uniform standards will begin to appear more necessary.

A late push for CAV legislation in the last Congress petered out in the December lame duck session. After unanimously passing the House in 2017, the bill stalled when Senate Democrats balked at what they saw as its lack of sufficient safety protections. With Congress’ schedule blocked by the government shutdown, CAV legislation has been put on the back burner so far in 2019. At some point though, Congress is likely to take up a new bill. The Senators who were key drivers of the CAV bill in the past Congress, Gary Peters (D-MI) and Jon Thune (R-SD) remain in the Senate. Both Senators retain their influential positions on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The key change from the previous Congress will be the dynamic in the newly Democratic-controlled House. While a bill passed unanimously last term, it remains to be seen whether the new House will be held back by the same consumer safety concerns that led the Senate to reject the bill last term.

As autonomous vehicle technology continues to march forward, and calls for a uniform nationwide regulatory system are expected to grow. We will be following major developments.