• November 11th, 2019

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to bring major improvements in highway safety. Motor vehicle crashes caused an estimated 37,133 fatalities in 2017; a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has shown that 94% of crashes are due to human errors. For this reason, federal oversight of the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles has been of considerable interest to Congress. In the 115th Congress, autonomous vehicle legislation passed the House as H.R. 3388, the SELF DRIVE Act, and a separate bill, S. 1885, the AV START Act, was reported from a Senate committee. Neither bill was enacted. In the 116th Congress, interest in autonomous vehicles remains strong, but similar comprehensive legislative proposals have not been introduced. The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act, S. 2302, which has been reported by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, would encourage research and development of infrastructure that could accommodate new technologies such as autonomous vehicles.

In recent years, private and government testing of autonomous vehicles has increased significantly, although it is likely that widespread use of fully autonomous vehicles—where no driver attention is needed—may be many years in the future.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and NHTSA have issued three reports since 2016 that inform the discussion on federal autonomous vehicle policies, suggesting best practices that states should consider in their vehicle regulation; a set of voluntary, publicly available self-assessments by automakers showing how they are building safety into their vehicles; and a proposal to modify the current system of granting exemptions from federal safety standards.

Proponents of autonomous vehicles contend that lengthy revisions to current vehicle safety regulations could impede innovation, as the rules could be obsolete by the time they took effect. Federal and state regulatory agencies are addressing vehicle and motorist standards, while Congress is considering legislative solutions to some of the regulatory challenges.