The Fuse

DOT to Establish National Rules for Autonomous Vehicles in Next Six Months

by Leslie Hayward | January 14, 2016

Today at the Detroit Auto Show, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) efforts to streamline deployment of autonomous vehicles. The announcement, which has been seen as unusually proactive for a federal agency by some industry members, expresses a collaborative approach towards creating a “flexible framework,” that can enable driverless car technology to move forward. DOT also announced a request to invest $4 billion over the next 10 years to accelerate the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles through “real-world pilot projects,” and establish a common multistate framework. The request is part of the President’s budget proposal for FY17, which will be released on February 9th.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” said Secretary Foxx. “Today’s actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials, and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.”

Given the tremendous investments that the private sector has already made in the autonomous vehicle space, industry is more focused on the fact that DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are seeking to help accelerate deployment and adoption of autonomous vehicles.

It’s critical to note that the $4 billion request is far from a guaranteed outlay in the final budget, although it reflects the high priority that DOT is placing on autonomous vehicles. However, given the tremendous investments that the private sector has already made in the autonomous vehicle space, industry is more focused on the fact that DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are seeking to accelerate deployment and adoption of driverless cars. The agencies stated that they are working to develop national guidance on the safe deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles, and establish a common understanding of the performance characteristics of driverless cars, to be finalized in six months. NHTSA will also develop a model state policy on autonomous vehicles that “offers a path to consistent national policy.”

Reasonable national guidelines for autonomous vehicle deployment have long been understood as having the potential to mitigate a messy state-by-state patchwork of regulations, which is feared by automakers. Already, regulations vary in Nevada, California, Michigan, Florida, and Washington, D.C. California’s recently proposed regulations for post-testing deployment, which were seen as detrimentally austere, helped bring the risks of this approach to the fore. Industry experts argued that California’s proposed requirements were in contrast to recommendations put forward from companies like Google, whose research had shown that giving drivers partial control over a near-fully autonomous vehicle does far more harm than good.

Accordingly, Secretary Foxx released policy guidelines today that update NHTSA’s preliminary policy statements on autonomy from 2013, in light of the reality that innovation has made widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles increasingly feasible, and arguably even inevitable. The 2013 guidelines were largely cautious, stating, “As NHTSA’s research and experience develop, NHTSA will determine whether it should encourage and/or require application of the most promising crash avoidance technologies through regulation.”

The new guidelines state, “NHTSA will use all available tools to determine the safety potential of new technologies; to eliminate obstacles that would prevent or delay technology innovations from realizing that safety potential; and to work with industry, governmental partners at all levels, and other stakeholders to develop or encourage new technologies and accelerate their adoption where appropriate.”

The guidelines also recognize that autonomous vehicle technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, and states that DOT and NHTSA must remain “flexible and adaptable” given the pace of change. The agencies are encouraging automakers to use certain regulatory tools, namely interpretations and exceptions, to enable rapid deployment of safety innovations. However, it will be of critical importance that DOT and NHTSA act swiftly when responding to automaker requests for exceptions, to avoid creating roadblocks to deployment. According to NHTSA, humans are responsible for about 94 percent of accidents that occur on U.S. roads. Current research suggests that autonomous vehicles have the potential to save over 90 percent of the 33,000 lives lost each year in traffic accidents.

Today’s announcement failed to specifically address the many other advantages of autonomous vehicles, especially the potential of the technology to dramatically reduce American fuel consumption.

While safety in autonomous vehicle deployment is undoubtedly of critical importance, today’s announcement failed to specifically address the many other advantages of autonomous vehicles, especially the potential of the technology to dramatically reduce American fuel consumption, if properly implemented. According to Morgan Stanley research, a “utopian” shift to autonomous vehicles in which they become the new norm would bring about $150 billion per year in fuel savings in the United State alone. That figure is on top of the fuel economy improvements already put into place through 2025. Morgan Stanley expects that removing the human inefficiency of driving could provide an additional 20-to-30 percent improvement, while fuel economy could be improved by an additional 50 percent thanks to lightweighting and improved aerodynamics.