5 Federal AV Policy Developments to Watch in 2018

January 11, 2018

Automakers and tech firms launched a number of automated vehicle (AV) pilot programs in earnest last year, setting the stage for a slew of new public deployments of AVs in 2018. Meanwhile, government leaders began to develop the next generation of AV policies to provide regulatory certainty to manufacturers as the technology matures.

At the federal level, the House of Representatives and the Senate worked on largely bipartisan bills to create the first national legal frameworks for AVs, known as the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388) and AV START (S.1885), respectively. The content of these bills closely aligned with Eno’s recommendations in a report last May, Beyond Speculation: Automated Vehicles and Public Policy, which focused on the need for performance-based regulations that ensure public safety while encouraging private sector innovation.

In September, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) revised its voluntary guidance for AVs, known as Automated Driving Systems 2.0: A Vision for Safety (“2.0”). This document sought to reduce the regulatory confusion created in a previous version released under the Obama Administration, the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy Statement (FAVP).

Meanwhile, states and localities established or updated their AV policies in recognition of the rapid development of the technology. A number of states took steps to study the potential impacts of AVs and established policy frameworks that supported safe development – many of which Eno recommended in another AV report last year, Adopting and Adapting: States and Automated Vehicle Policy.

These are the five major federal AV policy developments to watch in 2018:

  1. Congress Will (Probably) Pass an AV Bill

While the House quickly passed the SELF DRIVE Act with unanimous support last summer, the Senate has made somewhat slower progress on its own bill.

AV START, which was co-written by Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), passed out of committee with a unanimous voice vote in October, despite some concerns expressed by Democrats. While Thune hoped bring the bill to the Senate floor before the end of 2017, a handful of Democrats placed a hold on the bill when he initiated the hotline process in November with the hope of bringing the bill to the floor for a unanimous consent vote.

As it stands, Thune and Peters are now attempting to work through concerns raised by Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Feinstein has reportedly placed the most consequential hold, stating that she is “strongly opposed” to AV START.

“I do not want untested autonomous vehicles on the freeways which are complicated, move fast and are loaded with huge trucks,” she told Bloomberg Government last month.

If it appears that Feinstein will vote against the bill, Thune and Peters may instead choose to bring the bill to the floor under regular order – in which case it appears very likely to pass the Senate with a majority vote, provided that Thune and Peters are able to secure floor time for the bill.

In the meantime, House and Senate staff have already begun informal “preconference” meetings to discuss their respective bills and hammer out early agreements to reconcile differences in their bills. (See ETW’s side-by-side comparison of the bills here.)

In recent conversations with ETW, Congressional staff and industry representatives have been cautiously optimistic that Congress will be able to pass a version of the bill before the summer.

  1. USDOT Will Expand its Role in AV Development

In accordance with its plan to provide an updated federal AV policy document annually, USDOT will release its next revision, titled 3.0, later this year.

Unlike the first two versions, 3.0 will address not just AV design and performance, but the actual implementation of automated driving technologies. As ETW reported last year, this document will draw on a wide range of research, pilot projects, guidance, and other agency actions to guide the testing and deployment of all forms of on-road transportation. This includes not just passenger vehicles, but also heavy-duty trucks, buses, and motorcycles.

A number of modal administrations will contribute to the document including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

If history is any indication, 3.0 will be released in September – the same month that the previous versions were published.

  1. Trucks and Truck Drivers Will Grab Headlines

Last year, the prospect of worker displacement was a lightning rod in the discussions around automated vehicles. There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. – driving a truck is the most common job in 29 states – leading to concerns that fully automating these jobs could have massive social and economic impacts.

While these concerns led the Teamsters and other labor unions to oppose the inclusion of automated trucks and buses in the SELF DRIVE Act and AV START, sources indicate that lawmakers are already discussing a separate bill related to automated commercial vehicles that may be introduced this year. This bill is likely to create a regulatory framework for automated vehicles while also addressing potential workforce impacts.

However, there are a number of factors that will prevent the displacement of millions of human drivers in the decades to come.

First of all, automated driving technology is still years – if not decades – from being mature enough to take humans out of the cab entirely. Additionally, truck drivers do much more than simply drive a truck: loading/unloading cargo, scheduling pickups, maintaining vehicles, keeping cargo secure, and so on.

Moreover, the trucking industry is already facing an employment crisis on the opposite end. According to the American Trucking Associations, there is a constant shortage of qualified truck drivers – in 2015, it was roughly 50,000. Adding to this challenge, the median age of truck drivers is seven years older than the median U.S. worker, at 49.

This has been exacerbated by low rates of young people entering the challenging profession for a number of reasons, including being far away from home for extended periods of time.

(Source: SAFE)

For more information, read ETW’s deep dive into workforce concerns related to automated trucks here.

  1. Transit Automation Will Get the Attention it Deserves

Last month, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) unveiled its 5-year agenda for researching automation in transit. Dubbed the Strategic Transit Automation Research (STAR) Plan, it is intended to galvanize public transit agencies and manufacturers to begin researching and piloting automated buses.

The STAR Plan, which started with this fiscal year (FY18), will take a three-pronged approach that includes research initiatives, integrated demonstrations of transit automation, and establishing strategic partnerships with stakeholders.

  1. More Discussion of AVs and Equity

If nothing else, 2017 demonstrated that AVs are the Rorschach test of policy. From (potentially) decreasing congestion to encouraging shared rides to reducing traffic fatalities, every politician found a potential benefit of AVs to latch onto.

In the first automobile revolution, the technology drove the decisions made by policymakers, manufacturers, and the general public. Highways were built through low-income neighborhoods to allow for speedy commutes from the suburbs. Infrastructure for transit and alternative transportation modes took a back seat to roads and highways for personal vehicles. And cars were designed primarily for able-bodied people – designing vehicles to accommodate people with disabilities was an afterthought.

Things seem to be different this time around. With the second automobile revolution approaching in slow motion, policymakers and stakeholders are proactively discussing how to avoid once again leaving behind people with disabilities, low-income communities, and other groups facing mobility obstacles.

For this reason, both the SELF DRIVE Act and AV START included provisions instructing USDOT to research and prepare for the potential impact on these groups.

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) has been a particularly strong voice on these issues throughout the House hearings on AVs. Harper, who is vice chairman of the subcommittee that wrote the SELF DRIVE Act, often shared stories about the challenges that his son with disabilities faces by being unable to drive himself to the bookstore or grocery stores. (Note: Harper just announced on January 4 that he would not seek reelection this year.)


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