Legal Alerts Mar 17, 2016

The State of Our Autonomy is... Moving Fast, Optimistic and Filled with Regulatory Questions

Cities Need to Climb on Board or Be Left Behind

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Car manufacturers are pressuring lawmakers to develop a federal regulatory framework for a world where automated vehicles are a reality and not just science fiction. This was clear at a packed Senate committee hearing earlier this week titled “Hands Off: The Future of Self-Driving Cars.” While regulatory questions and operational challenges exist, gears are quickly shifting into “drive” at the federal level. These changes mandate that municipalities remain informed and track forthcoming federal legislation and rulemakings concerning the operation of autonomous vehicles on our roadways.

Many witnesses in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation hearing requested that the federal government step in to prevent varying state and local laws and regulations on autonomous vehicle testing and operation. According to testimony from Google, 23 states have introduced 53 pieces of legislation with different approaches and concepts toward regulating autonomous vehicles. Witnesses warned that such a patchwork and inconsistent approach will hinder ongoing U.S. testing and innovation. It also puts the U.S. at risk of falling behind Europe and Japan, where regulations are being relaxed to allow for more comprehensive and real world testing. Moreover, consistency will be necessary to avoid any confusion when traveling across state lines.

There is evidence that the federal government is stepping into the regulatory landscape. The Department of Transportation announced last week that it will hold hearings in Washington, D.C. and California on how to best integrate the safe operation of automated vehicles onto our roads. This announcement was complimented with the release of a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration discussing potential barriers and challenges of trying to fit autonomous vehicle safety regulations into the existing Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standards.

These standards were developed when automated vehicles were not even a glimmer in the eyes of regulators. While the barriers identified in the report to meeting existing standards were not insurmountable, the report cautions that compliance challenges substantially grow in size when designs move away from traditional vehicles on the road today. For example, if a car is fully automated, why would it need a steering wheel, side view mirrors and traditional seating? An automated car without such standard features does not work with the current FMVSS, which means new safety standards will need to be adopted. Additional issues, such as privacy and cybersecurity, also need to be addressed.

Lawmakers are rightly excited about the potential opportunities that automated vehicles bring. This growing enthusiasm and pressure on federal lawmakers to ensure the U.S. continues to be a leading innovator in automated vehicles sets the stage for federal regulation. Since municipalities may need to support the infrastructure required for automated vehicle operation — and because the implementation of this technology may have significant impacts on budgets and on planning — localities should watch federal regulatory developments closely, and participate as necessary in relevant rulemakings to protect local interests.

If you have questions regarding regulatory developments concerning autonomous technologies, please contact the author of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the Transportation Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

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Disclaimer: BB&K Legal Alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.

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