On Jan. 11, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) released its Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan. This document is an overview of USDOT’s research and policy development activities on automated vehicles (AVs) over the last four years. In the same week, USDOT also released the first final rule related to automated vehicles, Occupant Protection for Vehicles With Automated Driving Systems, which kicks off the long process of modernizing federal regulations for the AV age. Neither will surprise anyone who has been following these activities, but these documents can serve as a useful roadmap for the next administration to continue building the competence needed to eventually integrate these technologies into the national automotive safety and performance regulatory ecosystem.
USDOT’s AV Comprehensive Plan is the culmination of years of research and policy guidance. During the last few years, USDOT had released three guidance relevant guidance documents: Automated Driving Systems 2.0 (2017), Automated Vehicles 3.0 (2018), and Automated Vehicles 4.0 (2020). From the ADS 2.0 guidance published in 2017, each successive guidance document built on the previous guidance. Matters covered, which have been compiled in the new AV Comprehensive Plan, include standardizing definitions of vehicle automation, adopting a voluntary safety self-assessment framework for developers to share information with regulators and the public, and outlining a longer-term strategic vision for federal AV policy.
While recognizing that the ultimate goal is to fully integrate automated driver assistance systems and automated driving systems (frequently and imprecisely called “autonomous vehicles”) into USDOT’s consumer and commercial vehicle safety regulatory frameworks, the AV Comprehensive Plan explains that modernizing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations administered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will take time.
Specifically, before promulgating the minimum safety and performance requirements authorized by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and related legislation, regulators will need expert-developed technical standards (known in federal policy as “voluntary consensus standards”) to incorporate in future regulations.
As I’ve noted in the past, premature and overzealous regulation could “short-circuit the efficient development of these needed technical standards and delay the realization of potential safety gains.”
Several years ago, an executive at a leading standards-developing organization told me he was frustrated by federal regulators’ lack of active participation on his organization’s technical standards committees. Regulators, he said, would silently observe if they attended the meetings at all, providing little insight into their thinking and leaving the expert committees to engage in speculative guesswork.
To be sure, the technical expertise outside of government is certainly greater than the technical expertise within government. However, the government possesses superior understanding of how these technical standards may be eventually incorporated into regulation. If technical experts understand what regulators are seeking, they can better address potential regulatory concerns as they arise during the voluntary consensus standard development process.
As the AV Comprehensive Plan suggests, the Biden administration should work to ensure that federal regulators are participating in the standards development process when such participation adds value. Doing so increases the odds both standards-developing organizations and federal regulators will be able to competently develop AV standards and regulations in the future.
Rather than hitting the reset button and jettisoning existing rulemaking projects from the regulatory pipeline, the Biden administration should seek to build on the automated vehicles expertise developed within USDOT over the past two administrations.
One important example is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking on the Framework for Automated Driving System Safety. Comments on this pre-rule proposal, which seeks answers on 24 questions related to the safety framework, agency AV research, administrative mechanisms, and—perhaps most importantly for the new administration and Congress—statutory authority, are due Feb. 1. The Biden USDOT should carefully consider responses to this notice to help guide its AV policy planning activities, which stakeholders hope will provide more depth to the roadmap laid out in USDOT’s AV Comprehensive Plan.
Automated vehicles have the potential to dramatically improve safety, mobility, and accessibility for Americans—especially for members of traditionally disadvantaged groups. While still many years away from wide-scale consumer deployment, getting the policy right today will help ensure that the potential gains are realized in the future. Thanks to the efforts at USDOT during the past several years, the Biden USDOT is well-positioned to advance sound automated vehicle policy.