Federal Policy for Driverless Vehicles Were Just Released….and They Were Worth the Wait!

After months of build-up, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA) released its Federal Autonomous Vehicles Policy. It turns out the hype was merited. As stated in NHTSA’s press release, this 116-document “sets a proactive approach to providing safety assurance and facilitating innovation through four key parts. Vehicle performance guidance uses a 15-point Safety Assessment to set clear expectations for manufacturers developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies. Model state policy delineates the Federal and State roles for the regulation of highly automated vehicle technologies as part of an effort to build a consistent national framework of laws to govern self-driving vehicles. Finally, the policy outlines options for the further use of current federal authorities to expedite the safe introduction of highly automated vehicles into the marketplace, as well as discusses new tools and authorities the federal government may need as the technology evolves and is deployed more widely.”

I’m still digging into the details and I am planning on more blog posts on this topic, but I’ll share a few of my reactions and some that I’ve read:

  • To date, I’ve referred to fully automated vehicles as driverless vehicles, self-driving vehicles, or autonomous vehicles. The federal government has now introduced a new term: highly automated vehicles (HAVs).
  • NHTSA has a lot of policy supporters. This article includes some heavy hitters in the industry voicing their appreciation for the federal government’s leadership.
  • As this article points out, the policy states that “vehicles should record, at a minimum, all information relevant to the [crash] and the performance of the system, so the circumstances of the event can be reconstructed.” While it’s unclear exactly how the data sharing will happen, this is certainly a challenge…. And a broader governmental issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later as the government pursues partnerships with new mobility companies (e.g., Uber, Zipcar, etc) today.
  • I may be missing it, but the policy does not seem to mention the freight industry. This article suggests that the freight industry was not involved in the policy development. Hopefully, they will speak up during this 60-day comment period because they are important stakeholders!
  • I think the delineation between federal and state roles is logical and clear. As stated in this article, “when humans are driving, states are in charge, but when software is driving, the feds are in charge.”
  • I haven’t heard or seen any mention of federal funding supporting the advancement of this technology. We will likely have to wait until the next presidential term to see how that shakes out.

I’m most impressed by the US DOT’s leadership and progressive stance regarding accelerating the development and adoption of highly automated vehicles.  I think their approach is admirable and will likely be studied and, ultimately, copied by many other countries.  What did everyone else think?

About Lauren Isaac

Lauren Isaac is the Director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile. Easymile provides electric, driverless shuttles that are designed to cover short distances in multi-use environments. Prior to working at EasyMile, Lauren worked at WSP where she was involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Lauren wrote a guide titled “Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies” regarding how local and regional governments should respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium, and long term. In addition, Lauren maintains the blog, “Driving Towards Driverless”, and has presented on this topic at more than 75 industry conferences. She recently did a TEDx Talk, and has been published in Forbes and the Chicago Tribune among other publications.
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2 Responses to Federal Policy for Driverless Vehicles Were Just Released….and They Were Worth the Wait!

  1. Blair Schlecter says:

    Lauren, thank you for this, very helpful as always. Two key policy issues that I think should be ultimately all be addressed in an integrated manner by policymakers are (1) how you deal with the land use implications of this technology, which I think are just as interesting and perhaps even more far reaching; and (2) how you deal with the employment impact. Millions of driver jobs in the transportation industry will eventually be lost and how do you deal with that?


  2. Hi Lauren!

    I’d just like to say that I am a huge fan of this blog! Your posts do such an excellent job of communicating difficult concepts about driverless vehicle technology, ethics and policy! It is really refreshing to see someone so excited about what the future holds for driverless technologies!

    I am running a social engagement campaign about the advent of driverless tech in Australia (was very excited to see that you paid a visit to our fair west coast!). As I am sure you are aware, currently only a handful of Australian states allow for on-road trials of driverless vehicles 

    Thankfully a series of reform recommendations are on their way in mid-November from Australia’s National Transport Commission! I wrote a little article about what we can expect and thought you may find it interesting to compare the issues addressed in the new US federal policy.




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