Administration Releases AV 4.0 Document

The Trump Administration today released the fourth iteration of a federal government policy statement on automated vehicles (AVs). The document, entitled Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies, was unveiled by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios in a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

(Speaking of Vegas, happy 85th birthday to Elvis Presley.)

Secretary Chao said “AV 4.0 will ensure American leadership in AV technology development and integration by providing unified guidance for the first time across the Federal government for innovators and stakeholders.”

The AV 4.0 document is fundamentally different than the previous three AV policy iterations. The earlier documents were created by the Department of Transportation and were generally confined to areas of USDOT jurisdiction. The 4.0 document was produced cooperatively by USDOT and the White House National Science and Technology Council. As such, it discusses the AV-related activities of 38 different federal agencies and commissions and attempts to place those activities within an overall federal policy framework.

Because of that, the policy statement (“U.S. Government Automated Vehicle Technology Principles”) only takes up the first 5 pages of the paper. The bulk of the document is the recitation of the activities of the 38 federal entities with some participation in the AV process, together with useful appendices of agency contacts and links to what appears to be every document Uncle Sam has ever produced on the subject.

The 10 policy principles are grouped into 3 “core interest” areas:

I. Protect Users and Communities

1. Prioritize Safety. As part of this, the government “will also enforce existing laws to ensure entities do not make deceptive claims or mislead the public about the performance capabilities and limitations of AV technologies including, for example, deceptive claims relating to vehicle safety or performance.” (The document never mentions Tesla by name, but it seems pretty clear who this is mostly in reference to.)

2. Emphasize Security and Cybersecurity. The government will “support the design and implementation of secure AV technologies, the systems on which they rely, and the functions that they support to adequately safeguard against the threats to security and public safety posed by criminal or other malicious use of AVs and related services” and will “work with developers, manufacturers, integrators, and service providers of AVs and AV services to ensure the successful prevention, mitigation, and investigation of crimes and security threats targeting or exploiting AVs, while safeguarding privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.”

3. Ensure Privacy and Data Security. The document promises a “holistic, risk-based approach to protect the security of data and the public’s privacy as AV technologies are designed and integrated.”

4. Enhance Mobility and Accessibility. “The U.S. Government embraces the freedom of the open road, which includes the freedom for Americans to drive their own vehicles. The U.S. Government envisions an environment in which AVs operate alongside conventional, manually driven vehicles and other road users; therefore, the U.S. Government will protect the ability of consumers to make the mobility choices that best suit their needs.” Translation: no forthcoming proposals for AV-only roads or lanes, and a resounding rejections of the LaHood “get Americans out of their cars” philosophy.

II. Promote Efficient Markets

5. Remain Technology Neutral. “The U.S. Government will adopt—and promote the adoption on an international level of—flexible, technology-neutral policies that will allow the public, not the Federal Government or foreign governments, to choose the most economically efficient and effective transportation and mobility solutions.”

6. Protect American Innovation and Creativity. A promise of continued “pro-growth policies to protect our economic prosperity and innovative competitiveness” via the promotion of “sensitive emerging technologies through the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights—patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets—technical data, and sensitive proprietary communications” to “prevent other nations from gaining unfair advantage at the expense of American innovators.”

7. Modernize Regulations. The document promises to “modernize or eliminate outdated regulations that unnecessarily impede the development of AVs—or that do not address critical safety, mobility, and accessibility needs—to encourage a consistent regulatory and operational environment” and to “promote regulatory consistency among State, local, tribal and territorial, and international laws and regulations so that AVs can operate seamlessly nationwide and internationally.” Regulations are promised to be “as performance-based and non-prescriptive as possible…”

III. Facilitate Coordinated Efforts

8. Promote Consistent Standards and Policies. The government reiterates its goal to “prioritize participation in and advocate abroad for voluntary consensus standards and evidence-based and data driven regulations” (emphasis added).

9. Ensure a Consistent Federal Approach. The government promises to “proactively facilitate coordination of AV research, regulations, and policies across the Federal Government to ensure maximum effectiveness and leverage inter-agency resources” and to consistently enforce Buy America and other rules and orders.

10. Improve Transportation System-Level Effects. “The U.S. Government will focus on opportunities to improve transportation system-level performance, efficiency, and effectiveness while avoiding negative transportation system-level effects from AV technologies.” (Ed. Note: Not sure it’s possible to repeal the Law of Unintended Consequences.)

One thing that leaps out is that, like 2.0 and 3.0, AV 4.0 relies on “voluntary consensus standards” – not compulsory federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) implemented by NHTSA through its grant of federal authority under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. The document states that “Voluntary consensus standards can be validated by testing protocols, are supported by private-sector conformity assessment schemes, and offer flexibility and responsiveness to the rapid pace of innovation. Furthermore, many [Standards Development Organizations] utilize existing processes that allow industry participation in the development of voluntary consensus standards.” The summary of NHTSA activities in the document (pages 17-18) emphasizes NHTSA’s research activities, not their regulatory activities.

The report is also silent on the need or desirability for additional legislation to implement federal AV policy, after the failure of AV legislation in the 115th Congress to cross the finish line and the complete lack of movement on such legislation so far in the 116th Congress. The standard DOT line has been that they are working with Congress behind the scenes, but that there is no administrative or regulatory substitute for the certainty that a law provides. If the Administration is able to submit a detailed legislative proposal for surface transportation reauthorization in the coming months, such legislation might contain proposed AV legislation as well.

While many of the federal entities listed in AV 4.0 are predictable (USDOT and its various modes, the National Science Foundation, Commerce Department entities, Federal Trade Commission, etc.), there are some surprises:

  • U.S. Postal Service. The USPS “operates the largest civil agency fleet of vehicles in the country with well over 200,000 vehicles. The use of AVs offers an opportunity for USPS to improve operational efficiency and enhance the safety of postal workers and the public.” They already sent out a Request for Information on production of an AV mail delivery vehicle, and they have already tested an automated tractor-trailer that has made 5 round-trips between Dallas and Phoenix.
  • NASA. When you think about it, no one has more experience at operating robots over long distances than NASA. The report discusses ways to use the remote operation and machine learning technologies developed by NASA for the space program in the ground AV space.

And, although the new AV 4.0 document may be considered Trump Administration policy, some key pieces of the federal agenda are outside the President’s direct control. The President cannot directly dictate policies to be adopted by federal regulatory commissions, like the Federal Communications Commission. So, while AV 4.0 says clearly that “USDOT strongly supports preserving the ability for transportation safety applications to function in the 5.9GHz Safety Band,” the draft regulations on 5.9 GHz to be released by the FCC in the coming weeks may not take that into account.

Previous iterations of federal AV policy were:

Also, please check out Eno’s April 2017 report on the subject, Beyond Speculation: Automated Vehicles and Public Policy, and its April 2019 update.

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