Chao Preparing Federal AV Policy Revision – What We Know So Far

June 9, 2017

“As promised, the Department is reviewing and updating this policy to incorporate feedback and improvements recommended by numerous stakeholders.  NHTSA has been asked to accelerate the process of finalizing the updated voluntary framework so there is clarity among those who look to the Department for guidance.” –Secretary Elaine Chao, June 2017

This sets an ambitious timeline for USDOT, under the direction of a brand new secretary, to revise a document that not only sets the federal policy agenda for automated vehicles (AVs), but also impacts the nation’s continued leadership in developing this emerging technology.

Compounding this issue, many political appointee positions remain vacant. This includes, most importantly, the leadership role for the nation’s primary regulator of motor vehicles, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The current FAVP was published in the twilight months of the Obama Administration, at the same time as Self-Driving Ubers began plying Pittsburgh and as many as 20 companies were already testing AVs in California. When it was released in September 2016, the FAVP provided AV developers and policymakers with a defined – yet nonbinding – set of expectations for how the technology would be regulated at the federal level. USDOT indicated that it would regularly (and probably annually) update the FAVP.

According to Chao, the new FAVP will also be comprised of voluntary guidelines rather than “rules that impede future technological advances. She has indicated that the new FAVP will focus on three key areas to help accelerate the development of AVs in the United States:

  • Supporting industry innovation and encouraging open communication with the public and with stakeholders;
  • Making Department processes more nimble to help match the pace of private sector innovation; and,
  • Encouraging new entrants and ideas that deliver safer vehicles.

Based on these key areas, ETW has compiled what we know so far about how Secretary Chao and the Administration plan to revise the FAVP.

“Research shows that the causes of highway fatalities differ according to region, population density, resource availability and many other factors. So while creating a framework to encourage new technologies, the Department will continue to work with the states to develop customized, multi-pronged approaches to address highway safety.” –Secretary Elaine Chao, June 2017

Inevitably, a major focus of the FAVP will be to encourage further public and private research into how AVs can be safely tested and deployed in the years to come.

The process for regulating AVs may be significantly different from how NHTSA has traditionally regulated motor vehicles and their components. NHTSA and the industry have yet to agree on a procedure for testing AVs, which rely on a significantly more complex combination of hardware, software, and artificial intelligence to safely operate.

However, significant progress is being made. A research facility at the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), MCity, recently announced a new method for testing AVs that could cut 99.9 percent of the testing and validation costs for AVs – significantly freeing up the public and private sector’s resources to improve AVs and verify their safety.

USDOT is convening a stakeholder forum in San Francisco on July to review viable options for establishing technical standards, followed by a Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) On-Road Automated Driving Committee Meeting. This forum will provide further insight into how NHTSA may eventually certify AV safety and performance (The meetings are open to the public – USDOT indicated that RSVPs are preferred but not necessary).

“[The] previous Administration designated ten national proving ground sites for autonomous technology.  But this Administration is taking another look at this program.” –Secretary Elaine Chao, April 2017

This may include expanding the USDOT AV Proving Grounds program, which established a consortium of ten testing areas throughout the United States. This initiative is not currently funded by the federal government and currently requires a combination of public and private funding to conduct testing and report research back to other members of the working group.

While obtaining federal funding might be difficult in this environment, House appropriators indicated a great deal of interest in advancing AV technology during a hearing last month. (Ed. Note: ETW has developed comprehensive set of known partners and locations for the ten sites, which can be found here and is updated whenever additional partners are publicly announced.)

“We want to work with you and other stakeholders to ensure that the federal government is a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies, not an impediment. In particular, I want to challenge Silicon Valley, Detroit, and all other auto industry hubs to step up and help educate a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technology.” –Secretary Elaine Chao, February 2017

Chao has repeatedly said that she expects automakers and tech firms to “step up” and educate consumers about AVs in order to alleviate concerns about the safety of the technology. How, exactly, she envisions this would happen – and whether she would leverage her authorities as Transportation Secretary to compel them to do so – remains unclear.

However, the secretary herself is still learning to articulate her own understanding of AV technology. Just last month, she suggested that some vehicles currently on the road could drive themselves without any human intervention – which, as ETW reported, is categorically untrue.

Whether it was a misspeak or misunderstanding, her remarks (and the immediate backlash) illustrate the inherent difficulty of communicating about AVs – let alone devising policies to regulate them. Under former Secretary Foxx, USDOT spent years formulating the initial FAVP in consultation with technical and regulatory experts – Chao will inevitably need to employ the same tactic to build on this foundation.

“[For rulemakings on AVs], all options are on the table.” –Nat Beuse, Associate Administrator for Safety Research, NHTSA

Even the rulemaking process may be different. The department is evaluating the pros and cons of traditional rulemaking procedures as well as alternative methods like negotiated rulemaking. While each option has its strengths and weaknesses, NHTSA’s priority will be to balance stakeholders’ viewpoints and ensure that any regulatory action is supported by scientific research into its safety and economic effects.

As ETW reported in April, Beuse also indicated that the response to the FAVP was largely positive and the agency is now conducting AV research across five different categories:

  • Testing & evaluation: Exploring how AVs should be evaluated on test tracks, public roads, and potentially in computer simulations. “The idea that you can do everything on a race track is just a false sense of security,” Beuse said.
  • Human factors: Understanding how AVs interact with humans in the driver seat, other cars on the road, bicyclists, pedestrians, and other road users;
  • Benefits: Evaluating the true benefits of reaching higher levels of vehicle automation;
  • Cybersecurity: Establishing best practices to test systems, protect increasingly connected vehicles, and studying the true vulnerabilities and risks inherent in advanced vehicle technologies;
  • Design: Researching how vehicle designs may change as traditional assumptions about cars are disrupted (e.g., all occupants seated forward, drivers who are able to reach the steering wheel)

Regardless of when it is released, the updated FAVP under Chao is likely to touch on a variety of other topics including the emerging patchwork of state regulations on AVs, additional authorities and funding that the agency may request from Congress, a revision of the safety assessment letter (SAL) that manufacturers are required to submit, and a timeline for future agency action on AVs.

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