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

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

June 09, 2017  | Greg Rogers

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.

Additional Resources

Recent Reports from the Eno Center for Transportation

Recent Articles in Eno Transportation Weekly

(Photo: Senate Commerce Committee) 

Share

Related Articles

Op-Ed: Why Automated Driving Faces a Monster Uphill Battle

Op-Ed: Why Automated Driving Faces a Monster Uphill Battle

My three-year-old daughter takes her friend’s power wheels car for a first-time spin. I briefly show her how to turn the steering wheel...

Are federal AV investigations a first step toward federal regulation? Not necessarily, experts say

Are federal AV investigations a first step toward federal regulation? Not necessarily, experts say

"There hasn't been a lot of concrete regulation. The federal government has been largely permissive, and there are very few regulatory...

Webinar: The New Mobilities: Smart Planning for Emerging Transportation Technologies

Webinar: The New Mobilities: Smart Planning for Emerging Transportation Technologies

New transportation technologies are coming online faster than ever. While many of these emerging technologies are helping to expand our...

Congressional Hearing Discusses Promises and Perils of Automated Vehicles

Congressional Hearing Discusses Promises and Perils of Automated Vehicles

On May 18, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce held a hearing on "Promises and...

Guest Op-Ed: The Current State of Public Policy for Autonomous Trucking

Guest Op-Ed: The Current State of Public Policy for Autonomous Trucking

The US Department of Transportation (USDOT) has long advocated for the benefits autonomous vehicles can bring to the nation’s...

Senate Commerce Looks at AV Development, but Pulls Bill from Schedule

Senate Commerce Looks at AV Development, but Pulls Bill from Schedule

This week, a Senate committee hearing looked at autonomous vehicle (AV) safety regulation, but the committee then postponed debate on AV...

Research on Low Speed Automated Vehicles Demonstrates Their Limitations and Potential

Research on Low Speed Automated Vehicles Demonstrates Their Limitations and Potential

During the final week of the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting, the Transit Cooperative Research Program released...

Webinar: How Automated Delivery Could Shape the Future of Local Commerce

Webinar: How Automated Delivery Could Shape the Future of Local Commerce

COVID-19 has highlighted both the value of home delivery and contactless service. Automated vehicles (AV) could potentially enable both....

Guest Op-Ed: It Turns Out, Humans Are Pretty Smart: Developing Self-Driving Cars Is Harder Than We Thought

Guest Op-Ed: It Turns Out, Humans Are Pretty Smart: Developing Self-Driving Cars Is Harder Than We Thought

Self-driving cars. We’ve been promised for years they were “coming soon.” Most estimates a decade ago thought self-driving cars would...

Webinar: Automated Vehicle Technology, Public Policy, and BMW's Level 3 AV System

Webinar: Automated Vehicle Technology, Public Policy, and BMW's Level 3 AV System

While much of the transportation-related news has been focused on COVID-19 recovery, automated vehicle technologies are quietly progressing...

New Automated Vehicle Safety Self-Assessment from BMW Reveals AV Technology Progress, Policy Gaps

New Automated Vehicle Safety Self-Assessment from BMW Reveals AV Technology Progress, Policy Gaps

Last week BMW quietly released a new Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment (VSSA), which was posted to the National Highway Traffic Safety...

House Tees Up Revamp of an Automated Vehicle Bill

House Tees Up Revamp of an Automated Vehicle Bill

On Tuesday, February 11, the House Committee on Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection & Commerce held a hearing on...

Be Part of the Conversation
Sign up to receive news, events, publications, and course notifications.
No thanks