Jason Orr: Autonomous legislation is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem

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O’Melveny associate, Jason Orr warns of an impending impasse around the safety of untested autonomous vehicles on public roads. He will be speaking at the Autonomous Vehicle Safety Regulation World Congress in October.

When should federal regulations for autonomous vehicles be introduced?

It should be a priority to pass a federal regulatory framework that will preempt conflicting state laws. That framework should be broad and results-oriented, so that they allow a broad range of approaches to tackling the various engineering challenges. In the long-term, regulators should reconsider the structure of the FMVSS as they apply to automated vehicles. Those rules were built on the experience of engineering human-driven cars, and many of the rules have no meaningful purpose when applied to SAE Level 4 or 5 vehicles.

Several companies are pursuing a design of an autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel, should testing of such vehicles on public highways be allowed in all states now?

As long as a vehicle can comply with state traffic laws, a state’s interest in excluding particular vehicles from the road is attenuated. When it comes to the safe performance of the automated technology, that ought to be regulated at a national level, if at all. NHTSA has said as much in its federal policy, though some states continue to move forward with regulations that touch on the testing and performance of the automated technology itself rather than its ability to comply with traffic laws.

What is the main obstacle impeding the creation of autonomous vehicle legislation?

People want to make sure that highly automated vehicles are safe before they are deployed on the road, but there is little consensus on how automakers can prove their automated vehicles are safe. And there may be a chicken-and-egg problem where people are hesitant to put “untested” vehicles on the road, but the best test environment for these vehicles is the unpredictable reality of public roads, rather than an artificial simulation or test course.

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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