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Self-Driving Cars: Proposed Federal Legislation for Autonomous Vehicles Is a Major Change

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author photo by Russ Heaps June 2017

Beginning to wind its way through the U.S. House is a proposal addressing self-driving cars. According to Reuters, it's a package of 14 bills covering numerous aspects of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Until last fall, the federal government had basically assumed a hands-off attitude regarding AVs, but that changed when the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) issued its 116-page Federal Automated Vehicles Policy-September 2016 (FAVP).

Guidelines rather than regulations, FAVP was more of a preview of things to come. Those things would include DOT oversight of the development of all future driver-assistance systems with a 15-point safety assessment and detailed documentation for each point. It created the groundwork for several new agencies to monitor and regulate the autonomous industry. The oversight would cover any current automated system designed to conduct any part of the driving task, such as adaptive cruise control, as well as every future system.

While the FAVP is a bureaucratic attempt to address AVs, the House proposal is the first legislative outline offering direction not only to the DOT, but also to regulators in the 50 states.

How Would FAVP Be Affected?

At first glance, anyway, the proposal appears to dispense with the 15-point safety assessment and the reams of required paperwork along with it. It essentially blocks regulators from demanding pre-market approval for every piece of autonomous technology.

No question, this is good news for autonomous-technology developers and related businesses. Consider that driver-assist systems, such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist, would have been subject to the FAVP's regulation had it been the law of the land 15-or-so years ago, not only slowing down their adoption, but probably also increasing costs.

How Would States Be Affected?

Although states would retain power over insuring and registering AVs, the draft legislation names the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as the lead authority for regulating self-driving cars, overriding any state rules. This would be a blow to states such as California and New York that are among those crafting regulations restricting AV testing and deployment.

What Else?

One of the 14 bills addresses all of the autonomous testing data, validation reports and crash information turned over to U.S. regulators. The big takeaway here is that all such information would be treated as confidential business information, protecting it as proprietary. This, again, is good news for the technology developers.

What Does It Mean to You?

Nowhere near becoming law, the draft legislation would provide a sorely needed regulatory framework for advancing AVs. Although it may be a bit soft on safety, it does seem to clear the way for continued progress to fully automated vehicles.

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