Adopting and Adapting State Policies for Automated Vehicles

June 1, 2017

The rapid development of automated vehicle (AV) technology has generated considerable excitement across the country, prompting state policymakers to look for ways to implement this promising technology and attract investments from the companies developing them.

As of June 2017, at least 39 states have considered or enacted policies related to automated vehicles (AVs). Since Nevada passed the nation’s first AV law in 2011, 14 of those states have enacted laws around AVs. While many of these policies were written in the interest of advancing the technology, the result has been an emerging patchwork of regulations across the country.

Status of AV Legislation Across the United States

In the interest of helping states navigate this changing landscape, Eno has released a new report, Adopting and Adapting: States and Automated Vehicle Policy, in collaboration with its Digital Cities Advisory Board. Adopting and Adapting provides a roadmap to help states enact sound AV policies that encourage innovation while promoting safety on their roadways.

Crafting sound policy approaches to AVs is a challenging endeavor, as there is not a straightforward process to do so. The primary challenge is that vehicle automation is almost entirely driven by private sector innovation, and AV systems work within the existing roadway environment rather than relying on public-private coordination and investments.

This means that states will play an important role of supporting the private sector development of AVs by maintaining sound regulatory frameworks around motor vehicles, infrastructure upkeep, focused research to ease the safe and efficient deployment of AVs.

To date, states have taken one of four different approaches to AV technology:

  1. States without regulations or laws specifically pertaining to AVs: While policymakers in these states are aware of the technology and its potential to transform their transportation networks, they are either actively working on legislation or waiting for the technology to mature before enacting policies. This leaves any AV subject to existing traffic and motor vehicle laws, but does not explicitly prohibit their operation.
  2. States that have explicitly expressed interest in AVs but have not passed legislation: These states have not passed any laws directly related to testing and deployment, but have enacted executive orders to reduce regulatory barriers, formed working groups to support AV research, and/or undertaken other exploratory efforts.
  3. States that explicitly allow for AV testing: States like California and Michigan have passed laws and/or regulations to support the development, testing, and operation of AVs.
  4. States that explicitly allow fully automated vehicles to be deployed beyond the testing phase.

The Emerging Patchwork: The 4 Categories of State Action on AVs

As state policymakers adapt their regulatory frameworks to prepare for the advent of AVs, it is critical that they are both clear and precise in how they define vehicles with automated features. States are currently using a wide range of definitions for automated vehicles that create unnecessary confusion for manufacturers.

At its most basic level, an autonomous vehicle confers a vehicle’s ability to operate on its own, without requiring human monitoring and/or intervention. However, multiple states – most recently Georgia – have adopted definitions of autonomous vehicles with legal gray areas for vehicles that have automated features but still require human supervision and, when necessary, intervention.

As ETW has previously written, similar language has already resulted in a high-profile dispute between Uber and the State of California – this is likely to become a recurring issue as more companies begin testing and deploying AVs across the US.

In order to avoid regulatory confusion, the report recommends that states adopt the definitions of the levels of vehicle automation that were developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers International (SAE). These industry-backed definitions, which were adopted by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last year, allow AV developers to accurately categorize their vehicle’s capabilities and limitations.

If each state were to adopt these definitions, AV developers would have the ability to clearly define their vehicles under every state law without having to review as many as 50 state definitions of AVs. This does not just benefit manufacturers, but also the state officials, law enforcement, and other public entities that want to understand the automated capabilities and operational limitations of vehicles operating in their states.

Furthermore, Eno recommends that states focus on their core responsibilities of maintaining public roads, enforcing traffic laws, licensing drivers, registering vehicles, and regulating liability and insurance. In turn, the federal government will continue to fulfill its role of regulating motor vehicle design and performance.

The ongoing role of state governments in the development, testing, and deployment of AVs cannot be underestimated. With the current state of the technology, AVs operate best on public roads with clear lane markings, adequate signage, and no potholes. This is also in the best interest of all road users, from pedestrians to bikes to human-driven vehicles. For this reason, Eno recommends that states focus on roadway state of good repair rather than investing in sophisticated smart infrastructure technology that may be outdated within a few years as connected vehicle and automated vehicle technology evolves.

Adopting and Adapting: States and Automated Vehicle Policy can be accessed and downloaded on Eno’s website here.



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