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U.S. DOT Outlines Role of Federal Government in Future of Automation and Mobility

Autonomous Vehicles Alert Kevin M. Long

In "Autonomous Vehicles 3.0: Preparing for the Future of Transportation” (AV 3.0), the United States Department of Transportation outlines the past, present and future roles of different US DOT agencies. The US DOT announced its intention to work closely with stakeholders the private and public sectors to:

1. Establish performance oriented consensus based on voluntary standards and guidance for a vehicle and infrastructure safety mobility and operations;

2. Conduct targeted research to support the safe integration of automation;

3. Identify and remove regulatory barriers to a safe integration of automated vehicles;

4. Ensuring national consistency for travel in the interstate commerce; and,

5. Educate the public on capabilities and limitations of autonomous vehicles.

In reaching those goals, AV 3.0 outlined how the primary authorities of its principle operating administrations will approach Automated Driving Systems (ADS). AV 3.0 summarized the roles played by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

The NHTSA will have safety authority over ADS-equipped vehicles and equipment. Under Federal law, no state or local government may enforce a law on the safety performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment that differs in any way from a federal standard. NHTSA’s application of federal safety standards to performance of ADS-equipped vehicles and equipment will likely to raise questions about preemption and the future complementary mix of the federal, state and local powers. The federal standard would supersede state laws if the effect of a state law rule would be to impose a performance standard on a motor vehicle equipment manufacturer that is inconsistent with the federal standard.

In upcoming rule making, NHTSA plans to seek comment on proposed changes to particular safety standards to accommodate the automated vehicle technologies and the possibility of setting exceptions to certain standards -- that are relevant only when human drivers are present -- for ADS equipped vehicles.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)

The FMCSA regulates the safety of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) operating in interstate commerce, the qualifications and safety of commercial motor vehicle drivers and the safe operation of commercial truck and motor coaches. In the context of ADS for CMVs, FMCSA continues to exercise its existing statutory authority over the safe operation of the vehicles. It retains authority taking enforcement action if an automated system inhibits safe operation of the CMV. However, importantly going forward, subject to the deployment and development of safe ADS technologies, USDOT’s policy will be that FMCSA regulations will no longer assume that the CMV driver is always a human or that a human is necessarily present on board that commercial vehicle during its operation. Here again if the agency determines its state or local legal requirements interfere with the application of the FMCSA regulations, the US DOT has preemptive authority.

Federal Highway Administration

The FHWA has authority over all traffic control devices. These devices are changed significantly in an autonomous environment. The FHWA supports State and local governments in the design, construction and maintenance of the Nation's roads, mainly through the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. (MUTCD). As part of the updating effort, FHWA will pursue an update to the 2009 MUTCD and will take into consideration these new technologies and other needs. The goal is to help both humans and emerging automated vehicles to interpret the roadway.

Federal Transit Administration

The FTA retains safety authority over public transportation. It recognizes that operating domains and vehicle type and capabilities differ significantly. In July of 2018, the FTA issued the new Public Transportation Agency Safety Plan (PTASP) rule, which will become effective in July of 2019 and requires transit agencies to develop, certify and implement an agency safety plan by the following July. Those plans must include the processes and procedures necessary for implementing a Safety Management System. An SMS is a comprehensive, collaborative approach that brings management and labor together to build on the transit industry’s existing safety foundation to control risk better, detect and correct safety problems earlier, share and analyze safety data more effectively, and measure safety performance more carefully. The FTA is not proposing a one-size fits all approach. Rather FTA will provide transit agencies with tailored technical assistance as they develop an appropriate SMS approach to ensuring safe testing and deployment of automated transit bus systems.

The Federal Role in Automation Research

The US DOT will continue to play a limited and specific role in automation research. Its focus will be to (1) remove barriers to innovation, (2) evaluate the effects of technology in particular with regard to safety and (3) address market failures and other compelling public needs.

The Federal government through the US DOT will continue to play a leading role in the development of autonomous vehicles. Those involved in the market should be closely watching how the regulations evolve to take full advantage in this quickly changing marketplace.