Federal Autonomous-Car Guide Could Change States' Approach

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By Stephanie Beasley

Sept. 20 — Federal regulators hope states will change draft policies for autonomous vehicles in light of new recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Among other things, NHTSA suggests each state establish an automated safety technology committee to help lead policy efforts, as well as an application process for manufacturers seeking to test automated vehicles within the state.

NHTSA on Sept. 20 released model state policy along with recommendations for how auto manufacturers should assess the safety of autonomous vehicle technology (see related story in this issue). Though the documents are not legally binding, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said he hopes states will take cues from the recommendations which lay out the agency's thinking on areas like information sharing, occupant protection, privacy and cybersecurity.

Eight states—including California, Florida, Nevada and North Dakota—and the District of Columbia have already enacted autonomous vehicle laws that outline testing requirements, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed an executive order directing state agencies to support self-driving-car testing on public roads, in addition to creating pilot programs at certain universities.

California is drafting additional autonomous vehicle regulations that include a proposal to require a licensed driver who is certified to intervene should an autonomous vehicle malfunction. The proposed regulations have been especially worrisome to auto manufacturers that are developing self-driving car prototypes that would nullify the driver's role. For example, Google is testing a model that has no steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal.

“California has yet to fully act” on regulations, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said during a press briefing Sept. 20. “So there's an opportunity…for not just California, but all states, to coordinate to try and get that uniform consistent framework for the country.”

A Tale of Two States

Current federal regulations require cars to have steering wheels, but that could change. The new NHTSA recommendations make it clear the agency does not believe a steering wheel would be necessary in cars equipped with artificial intelligence capable of operating in the same way a human would, a senior Transportation Department official said.

Still, it is up to the states to define licensing requirements. Federal regulators are responsible for overseeing autonomous vehicle software, while states remain in charge of licensing laws and issues related to insurance and liability, according to the model policy.

Bloomberg BNA contacted the California Department of Motor Vehicles to ask whether it was considering changes to the proposed autonomous vehicle regulations. A spokesperson for the agency said officials were not granting interviews about the rulemaking at this time. However, the DMV anticipates releasing the next set of regulations in the coming months, the spokesperson said.

Pennsylvania state officials, on the other hand, are eager to incorporate the NHTSA guidance into upcoming policy recommendations. Pennsylvania currently allows testing of self-driving cars so long as there is a licensed driver in the vehicle. That driver does not have to be touching the steering wheel.

The state's Department of Transportation, known as PennDOT, has established an autonomous vehicle task force that includes state officials, law enforcement and companies like Uber and General Motors. The task force plans to issue policy recommendations and submit them to the state's transportation secretary in November.

“We have made it clear to the task force that we want to see the guidance from NHTSA before finalizing our recommendations,” Kurt Myers, deputy secretary for driver and vehicle services for PennDOT, told Bloomberg BNA on Sept. 16.

Defining a Driver

Among the questions that the Pennsylvania task force plans to address is when vehicle software can be considered a driver and what level of data collection should be required by the state in order to track potential safety issues. Myers said that, like NHTSA, PennDOT is hoping to develop a flexible regulatory framework that can evolve as quickly as the technology. A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania state Senate in May would give PennDOT the authority to establish autonomous vehicle policy and make changes as necessary.

“We have been proactive in our approach,” Myers said. “There have been many states that, to my knowledge, have not had this discussion.”

Pennsylvania is quickly becoming known as a hotbed for self-driving vehicle research and development. During the week of Sept. 12, Uber rolled out its first fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The company established its Advanced Technology Center in the city last year and hired away a slew of top researchers from Carnegie Mellon University.

“Pittsburgh, and in particular Carnegie Mellon University, have been leaders in autonomous vehicle research for decades and this is a logical next step,” a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto (D) told Bloomberg BNA. “We're happy to have developed a relationship with Uber, and welcome working with fellow innovative companies, especially those bringing new services and employment opportunities to our residents.”

The Michigan state Senate passed legislation earlier this month that would allow self-driving cars to operate without an occupant.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington at sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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