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Automated vehicles – it's time for states to step up

In September 2016, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued its highly anticipated Federal Automated Vehicles policy. While the policy is only advisory, it sets out a reasonably complete direction for highly automated vehicle (HAV) safety regulation in the USA. The policy recommends a framework for voluntary HAV manufacturer submittals, including a 15-point safety assessment for new driving systems. Perhaps the biggest proposed change in approach by the USDOT would be a move to government pre-certification of vehicles and systems, abandoning the current process of industry self-certification. The policy “strongly encourages states to allow [US]DOT alone to regulate the performance of HAV technology and vehicles”.

What will be the role of state transportation agencies, motor vehicle departments, law enforcement and insurance regulators in managing the roll-out of HAVs? NHTSA outlines a Model State policy to describe the respective roles of federal and state government. The recommendations include: identification of a lead state agency for HAVs; state permitting of HAV testing; and establishment of a regulatory framework and removal of unnecessary barriers for HAV testing, deployment and operations.

The range of regulatory challenges for states is a daunting one. The NHTSA policy list of regulatory issues for states includes: law enforcement, emergency response, vehicle insurance, crash reporting, accident liability, education, vehicle safety, vehicle maintenance, and environmental impacts.

The NHTSA policy calls for identification of an agency to take on this leadership task. As a veteran of state government, I can say the call for a lead agency for HAV regulation is premature. Since motor vehicle regulatory functions are very scattered in most states, it will not be beneficial to start with designation of a single lead agency. HAV deployment is an expansive and complex issue for state government oversight, and it’s important that state response starts with the chief executive of each state – the governor. Each state governor could designate a ‘czar’ to begin the process of HAV response on a cross-cutting rather than siloed basis.

Equally important, a 50-state forum to support discussion and organize integrated state response is a critical function. The creation of a national forum for the 50 states is not addressed in the NHTSA policy. There are national associations that support individual functions related to HAVs, for instance the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Governors Highway Safety Association, American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and multiple national law enforcement associations. Each of these will play a functional role.

But the next action should be for each state governor to create a central point of leadership to balance HAV deployment safety and benefits, and a national convening group to start a cohesive discussion. Perhaps the USDOT can take on this coordination assignment, but other groups may be even more effective. The National Governors Association may be a good alternative organization to assist states in implementing early cross-cutting HAV deployment work. The need for quick and coordinated state response makes HAV deployment one of the greatest government challenges in decades.

 

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