Here at Weil’s Product Liability Monitor, we’ve been keeping a close eye on developments relating to driverless – or “autonomous” – cars.  For a couple of recent posts, see here and here.  It’s an exciting area to follow since the technology has the potential to save lives, reduce traffic, and lessen environmental impacts–not to mention a host of legal implications.  Now, the race to autonomous vehicles is shifting into an even higher gear.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Department of Transportation is set to spend nearly $4 billion over the next 10 years to speed up the arrival of driverless cars.  According to a recent DOT press release, the budget proposal would provide nearly $4 billion over a decade for pilot programs to test vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country, and work with industry leaders to ensure a common multistate framework for connected and autonomous vehicles.

DOT also enumerated several milestones it intends to meet in 2016, many of which emphasize a desire to quickly and efficiently develop uniform regulatory guidance for automakers (and prevent a regulatory “patchwork” in this emerging area):

  • Within six months, NHTSA will work with industry and other stakeholders to develop guidance on the safe deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles, providing a common understanding of the performance characteristics necessary for fully autonomous vehicles and the testing and analysis methods needed to assess them.
  • Within six months, NHTSA will work with state partners, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and other stakeholders to develop a model state policy on automated vehicles that offers a path to consistent national policy.
  • Secretary Foxx encouraged manufacturers to submit rule interpretation requests where appropriate to help enable technology innovation.  For example, NHTSA responded to an interpretation request from BMW confirming that the company’s remote self-parking system meets federal safety standards.
  • When interpretation authority is not sufficient, Secretary Foxx further encouraged manufacturers to submit requests for use of the agency’s exemption authority to allow the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.  Exemption authority allows NHTSA to enable the deployment of up to 2,500 vehicles for up to two years if the agency determines that an exemption would ease development of new safety features.
  • DOT and NHTSA will develop the new tools necessary for this new era of vehicle safety and mobility, and will consider seeking new authorities when necessary to ensure that fully autonomous vehicles, including those designed without a human driver in mind, are deployable in large numbers when they are demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available.

DOT also released policy guidance that updates the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2013 preliminary policy statement on autonomous vehicles.  In it, DOT and NHTSA note that automation technology “is an area of rapid change, which requires DOT and NHTSA to remain flexible and adaptable as new information and technologies emerge.”  The agencies further commit, within six months, to providing best-practice guidance to industry on establishing principles of safe operation for fully autonomous vehicles.

These regulatory efforts (and financial support) aimed at autonomous vehicles are encouraging; the auto industry has been eagerly advancing these technologies that will literally save lives – but they need clear and uniform regulatory guidance to take the technology to the next level.