As Congress considers surface transportation reauthorization, it has the opportunity to address barriers to automated vehicle (AV) development and deployment. AVs, specifically those directed by an automated driving system (ADS) for the entire driving task, have great potential to improve safety, mobility, and access for Americans. Unfortunately, existing federal policies limit the ability for AV developers to deploy large numbers of AVs with novel design characteristics, such as purpose-built, light-weight, low-speed, electric-powered delivery vehicles. While fully integrating AVs into the federal motor vehicle regulatory ecosystem will take years, Congress can provide temporary relief to enable early deployments at scale while protecting the public interest.
Under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues and enforces Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). These regulations dictate safety and performance requirements for new domestically manufactured and imported motor vehicles, and currently number 73.
Federal policy enacted as part of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995 strongly encourages regulatory agencies, including NHTSA, to incorporate voluntary consensus standards developed by expert technical standards bodies in lieu of crafting government-unique standards. The existing 73 FMVSS incorporate 255 nongovernmental voluntary consensus technical standards developed by expert organizations such as SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers).
Given the novelty of AVs, few ADS-specific technical standards exist and even fewer are ripe for regulatory incorporation. NHTSA’s experience with past rulemakings suggests ADS-related FMVSS modernization may take years even after relevant voluntary consensus technical standards are published. ADS developers wishing to bring their technologies to market prior to the promulgation of new or amended safety regulations will likely need to seek temporary FMVSS exemptions.
Under current law, FMVSS exemptions limit developers of ADS-equipped vehicles with novel designs to 2,500 vehicles per year for two years, with an opportunity to renew the exemption for another two years. For comparison, established parcel carriers operate hundreds of thousands of delivery vehicles, and ride-hailing firms have more than a million drivers in the U.S. A recent report commissioned by Nuro estimates that a quarter-million to two million ADS-equipped delivery vehicles will be needed to meet U.S. customer demand by 2030. Ten thousand exempt vehicles over four years per manufacturer is not nearly enough to allow providers of ADS-enabled services such as taxis and last-mile delivery to scale nationwide.
Both the SELF DRIVE and AV START Acts considered during the 115th Congress in 2017 and 2018 would have substantially increased the annual FMVSS exemption cap for ADS-equipped vehicles from 2,500 to 100,000 and at least 80,000, respectively. Both would have also increased the length of the exemption period from two years to four years, with the potential for renewing the exemption for an additional four years.
Raising the annual FMVSS exemption cap is the most important action Congress could take to support safe deployment in the near term while technical standards and FMVSS remain under development. Requiring developers to demonstrate an equivalent level of safety or better prior to granting an exemption—a condition long required under most conventional exemption categories—should be maintained for noncompliant ADS-equipped vehicles. Coupled with this mandated safety assurance, Congress should increase the annual FMVSS exemption cap for ADS-equipped vehicles to at least 100,000 to ensure that the public is not denied safer and more efficient transportation options prior to the promulgation of ADS-specific FMVSS.