Autonomous Vehicles Shift Gears in the Federal Spotlight

November/December 2017

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
Autonomous Vehicles Shift Gears in the Federal Spotlight


Automated Driving SystemsAutonomous vehicles have emerged as one of the top public policy issues in Washington, DC, in 2017. Recognizing AVs’ potential promise, NSPE has been a leading advocate on the need to place the public health, safety, and welfare first, and require a licensed professional engineer to play a key role in the development, testing, and safety certification of autonomous vehicles. Recent federal legislative and regulatory actions raise serious concerns, though, that the testing and deployment of these vehicles is occurring before major safety, technological, and ethical issues are properly addressed.

Over the last several years, autonomous vehicles have become a growing subject of discussion and policymaking. State legislators and regulators began to look at how to address the new technology. However, as states began to pass different laws and regulations, the need for standardized rules became increasingly apparent. Congress and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began to draft legislation and guidelines on how to best proceed.

Initially, NHTSA took the lead, calling for input into a first set of guidelines. Given the industry’s remarkably fast pace of change, NHTSA issued in September 2016 a Federal Automated Vehicles Policy rather than a traditional rulemaking that would necessitate compliance with rules. NSPE was proactively engaged throughout the drafting process, with NSPE Executive Director Mark Golden testifying before NHTSA, as well as submitting formal public comment. NSPE was disappointed with the guidelines, which failed to address several major policy issues raised in the public comment period. NSPE submitted further public comment for the next version of the guidelines.

Under the new Trump Administration, Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao issued revised guidelines in September 2017. The second version of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidance on autonomous vehicles, A Vision for Safety, has reinforced NSPE’s disappointment and deepened its concern due to the guidance’s failure to adequately address NSPE’s public safety concerns. Unfortunately, rather than strengthening the guidelines, this new version explicitly focuses on how to enable manufacturers to accelerate deployment rather than addressing NSPE’s critical concerns. The Society strongly urges NHTSA to revise the guidance in 2018 to address three key issues:

  1. There is no requirement for a third-party certification of autonomous vehicles and technologies by someone (i.e., a professional engineer) in the decision chain who has a duty that puts public safety first and overrides competitive pressures. These guidelines allow manufacturers and suppliers to self-certify, eliminating a critical third-party safety check.
  2. Despite encouraging results of autonomous vehicle deployments in controlled environments, significant work must be done before human-operated and autonomous vehicles can safely share public roads. Many factors—weather, pedestrians, road conditions—are common, rapidly changing, and highly unpredictable. The guidelines assume these hurdles will be easily overcome and do not provide adequate safety protections.
  3. The enormous ethical implications of deploying autonomous vehicles are simply not addressed. No proposed methods for addressing life-and-death decisions are provided, leaving these critical considerations up to manufacturers. A third-party incorporating the input of all stakeholders should play a key role in this evaluation. These third parties should be legally obligated to place the public health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations.

The risks posed by failing to adequately address public safety protections are too great to ignore. For NHTSA to achieve its mission (“Save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards, and enforcement activity”) the recommendations proposed must be incorporated into the next version.

At the same time that NHTSA released its guidelines, Congress began taking major actions to pass legislation that would similarly accelerate deployment without the proper safety, technological, and ethical considerations. In a record-breaking advocacy action alert campaign, more than 700 NSPE members contacted nearly 300 members of the House of Representatives to oppose a bill that would make sweeping changes to federal motor vehicle safety standards to accelerate the widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles. The SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388) makes NHTSA responsible for regulating self-driving cars, preempting state and local standards. Furthermore, the bill would allow automakers to obtain exemptions to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles without meeting existing auto safety standards in the first year, a cap that would rise to 100,000 vehicles annually over three years.

Unfortunately, the legislation was approved by a voice vote on September 6. The bill will now go to the Senate where separate legislation is being considered. If the Senate passes legislation, the House and Senate versions will go to a conference committee to determine a final version to be voted on. NSPE will continue to proactively advocate for the role of the professional engineer in ensuring the public health, safety, and welfare is of paramount importance in the deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE’s senior government relations manager.