It’s not a problem if states have different autonomous car regulations


With the issuance of the USDOT Federal Automated Vehicles (AV) policy in September 2016, it became acceptable for states to begin stepping up with implementation strategies for AVs. And in the last quarter of 2016, indeed they did. Much can be learned from looking at the reports, regulations and laws recently implemented in three states.

In October, the California Department of Motor Vehicles revised its draft AV regulations. Most important, the revised rules provide a path for the testing and deployment of fully driverless vehicles (no ‘safety driver’). However, the revised draft met with immediate criticism from industry on numerous fronts, including issues related to annual reporting, data sharing, and vehicle safety certification with NHTSA’s 15-point checklist.

Moreover, requiring the approval for driverless testing from each local government almost ensures a lengthy and fragmented implementation process.

In November, PennDOT issued its draft report and, as has been widely reported, Uber is now testing its self-driving vehicles with fare-paying passengers in Pittsburgh. The testing has been arranged through informal cooperation with the city, and no permits were required.

A month after the draft report, PennDOT issued its proposed AV testing policy and immediately received industry criticism. Just as in California, the AV industry raised issues about testing proposals and data sharing. PennDOT also proposed a testing contract that assures the vehicles would meet all federal and state safety standards. Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania Senate bill separately introduced differs from the PennDOT approach. The AV industry is urging PennDOT to hold back its new requirements and allow legislation to establish a framework.

Finally, in December, Michigan took the big step of allowing highly automated, self-driving vehicles through legislation. The Michigan laws move past AV testing to also allow deployment of on-demand networks of self-driving vehicles on public roads. The Michigan laws have been praised, primarily because the home of the US auto industry is strongly supporting testing and deployment of AVs with minimum regulation. However, the laws have been criticized as using inconsistent and unclear language, and should not serve as a model for other states. The tech companies also worry the language favors existing auto makers in the roll-out of on-demand AV networks.

As a state DOT or DMV, what’s the right approach? One clear conclusion from last year’s actions is to establish a strong partnership with your legislature and the AV industry before moving forward with any laws. Looking at California, another conclusion would be to avoid general legislation requiring a state DOT or DMV to write extensive regulations. Regulators are trained to remove public risk, even if it means slowing innovation that would better protect long-term public safety.

Absent stronger direction from the federal government, the USA is likely headed toward a 50-state experiment in regulating AVs, especially as we move from testing to deployment. Does this result in the dreaded national patchwork, or the beauty of a federal system of strong states experimenting with different approaches as technology advances? I tend to side with the latter – we are in a decade-long transition of mobility, and differing approaches will get us a better result in the longer run.

Don Hunt is a transportation consultant and former director of Colorado DOT

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