Autonomous Vehicle Safety Regulation World Congress 2017

                    In late October I attended the second Autonomous Vehicle Safety Regulation World Congress in Novi, Michigan.  The conference took place approximately one month after NHTSA issued its second Automated Vehicles Policy and shortly after the Senate and the House passed their respective bills on autonomous vehicles (AVs).   The conference opened with an address by the Deputy Administrator of NHTSA, Heidi King, who reiterated NHTSA’s support of further development of Automated Driving Systems (ADS) while stressing that safety remains the top priority of NHTSA.  Deputy Administrator King’s address was followed by discussions by the leaders of the DMVs and DOTs of various states; speakers from not-profit and trade associations; and counsels from automakers and technology companies.  

                    Top issues addressed at the conference included federal and state roles in regulating AVs; uniformity of state laws in regulating AVs; law enforcement; cybersecurity; and insurance and tort law.  There was consensus amongst the speakers that ADS technology holds great potential in saving lives and, therefore, obstacles that may impede the development of this technology should be removed.  This includes eliminating barriers within the states to the testing and deployment of AVs (such as the New York law that requires that a driver have at least one hand on the steering wheel at all times); expanding exemptions manufacturers may obtain for AVs; and updating the regulatory framework involving AVs.  Additionally, several of the speakers believed that it is premature for NHTSA to issue safety regulations involving AVs at this time as rigid safety regulations may unnecessarily stifle the advancement of the technology.  These speakers believed that the current framework adopted by NHTSA strikes an appropriate balance between ensuring safety involving AVs without unnecessarily hinder the development of the technology.  As it currently stands, NHTSA does not require reporting on tested ADS systems.  Rather, NHTSA encourages companies to publicly disclose Voluntary Safety Self Assessments of their tested systems that would address 12 areas of focus relating to safety discussed in the latest NHTSA Policy.

                    There was a difference in opinions on the delineation between the federal and state governments’ roles in regulating the software “driver.”  While it is traditionally recognized that the federal government regulates the performance of the vehicle while the states regulate the “driver” and vehicle operations, there were questions as to whether the federal government had the exclusive right to regulate an AV’s software “driver.”  Practical points involving the testing and deployment of AVs were also discussed.  These include possible uniformity and/or reciprocity involving state traffic regulations for AVs, tort law and insurance requirements, and law enforcement.  These issues are being studied by a number of associations and groups and addressed by state leaders.  The speakers expressed optimism that these issues will be resolved as the technology advances and more AVs are on the road.  Issues involving the interaction between human drivers and software drivers were also mentioned.   As it is likely that level 3 and 4 AVs (where human drivers would be called upon to operate the vehicle) will be on the road first, states will most likely have to tackle safety issues involving the “hybrid” operation of AVs between humans and machines.  Recommended courses of action to address these issues include driver training and appropriate licensing and registration.  Finally, related technology, included truck platooning and V2V and V2I technology were considered.     

                    Overall, the conference was very well-run and informative.  It provided the audience with a good understanding of the current legal framework involving AVs as well as perspectives from federal and state regulators, automakers, technology companies and trade associations and non profit groups.  One issue that was barely touched upon, however, was the question of “how safe is safe enough” for AVs.  Perhaps this question will be addressed at the next conference.

                     The following are the key “takeaways” from the conference:

  1. There are currently no specfic federal regulations for AVs;
  2. We will likely see a tug of war between the states and the federal government on who is to regulate the AV software driver;
  3. We will likely see increased collaboration amongst the states in adopting a legal framework to improve uniformity.  

The following are key regulatory questions which are open and being discussed:

  1. Who regulates the AV “driver”?
  2. Should the NHTSA engage in rulemaking at this time?
  3. How should liability be allocated and what should the insurance requirement be?  
  4. How can uniformity amongst the states be created?



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