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What's Happening with Autonomous Vehicle Policy?

As Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said recently “one thing is certain: the autonomous revolution is coming. And as government regulators, it is our responsibility to understand it and help prepare for it.” 

But after a flurry of hearings and bills in 2017, the policy debate over autonomous vehicles has stalled in Washington, but continues to grow at the state and local levels. Chicago has already upgraded over 500 parking garages to accommodate autonomous vehicles, and?following similar programs in Arizona and Pennsylvania?several autonomous taxi services are ready to merge on to California roads as early as next year. If this is your first time hearing of a driverless car, here is a quick rundown to get you up to cruising speed. 

Over the past decade and a half, autonomous vehicle technology has been advancing in leaps and bounds. Today, a variety of computer-guided vehicles are starting to traverse public streets, and the largest challenges for both policymakers and drivers stem from the degree of automation a vehicle is equipped with. The Society of Automotive Engineers International categorizes autonomous vehicles by five different levels, from Level 1, which encompasses driver assistance technology like lane monitoring and blind spot detection, to Level 5, or fully automated driving from start to finish.  

By using some combination of lidar (a laser based-form of radar), cameras, sensors, and traditional radar, autonomous vehicles are able to navigate streets and rely on artificial intelligence to process their surroundings to avoid accidents. When equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle communication, autonomous vehicles are able to form a connected network that exchanges information on each vehicle’s location, speed, and surroundings. 

Autonomous vehicles are often seen as trying to disrupt a driving culture that has become entrenched in the ethos of modern American life. Yet despite being so ubiquitous, Americans have proven to be dangerously bad drivers since the invention of the automobile itself. Each year, there are millions of avoidable crashes and collisions, 94 percent of which are the direct result of human error. In 2016 alone, over 37,000 people in the United States died as a result of a vehicle accident. In fact, since the first automobile death in the United States in 1899, an estimated 3.7 million people have died, or roughly twice the number of Americans that have died in combat since 1775. By avoiding the human errors at the root of such accidents, autonomous vehicles offer a safer future.  

However, at this point, human driving instincts and reaction times remain indispensable. As the recent death in Tempe, Arizona, reminds us, every vehicle below the 5th level of automation still requires an attentive human driver to monitor the road and take control over the vehicle when needed.  

With the potential to reduce accidents and congestion?and alter how we design public spaces for cars ?autonomous vehicles could fundamentally change how people live, work, and travel. But without the proper balance of regulations and protections, the adoption of this still-emerging technology could be slowed or stopped all together.  

Idle Congress
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced competing bills to begin regulating and studying autonomous vehicles. The House version, known as the SELF DRIVE Act, passed that chamber in 2017. Meanwhile, the Senate’s AV START Act has been held up by safety concerns, particularly following the fatal incident in Arizona. While the House and Senate bills differ in several areas, both bills include provisions that broadly:

Though the Senate bill is bipartisan, several Democrats on the Commerce Committee have voiced their skepticism, particularly for its limited scope. Notably, neither the House or Senate bills address the automation of trucking. Both bills are also largely focused on vehicles with Level 3 autonomy and up, and, to some degree, preempt states from imposing their own restrictions.

State Powered

Without explicit federal action, states and cities have been left in the driver’s seat. So far, 35 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation or signed executive orders defining and regulating the use of autonomous vehicles.

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The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking each state’s policies and any newly introduced legislation. So far, the majority of states with autonomous vehicle legislation have focused on studying and testing requirements, but 15 states have passed laws on “platooning.” Platooning allows networked vehicles to closely travel in a convoy, braking and accelerating together, a practice particularly relevant for maximizing the efficiency of semi-trucks on a highway. Importantly, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have largely taken on advisory roles, releasing an annual guidance for both local officials and the industry. An updated version of the guidance, called 3.0, is expected to be released later this year, and will expand to other relevant modal administrations, specifically the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration.


Rubber, Meet Road

Though autonomous vehicles are still an emerging technology, they are already being tested in the United States (or preparing to be tested) in over 40 cities. The Alphabet-subsidiary Waymo announced in February that their autonomous fleet has traveled over 5 million miles on public roads across 25 cities and tested 5 billion miles in simulations. These tests and public operations are being conducted under a hodgepodge of state and local regulations, sometimes with widely different agreements in place on how and when the private operators share data with the public.

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