The following post was co-authored by R Street Tech Policy Associate Caleb Watney. 


With tech and car companies racing to advance the state of self-driving car technology, the House Energy and Commerce Committee just gave the burgeoning industry a measure of regulatory certainty. Earlier today, the committee marked up and unanimously passed H.R. 3388, the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act, a draft version of which previously moved through the panel’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

The bill would reserve for states and localities the power to regulate their streets and the rules of the road, as is appropriate. But when it comes to regulating vehicle design, performance and safety standards, the federal government would continue to take the lead through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Even though that basic division of regulatory labor has been a successful model for 60 years, groups representing city and transportation departments, along with allied activists, are sounding an alarmist warning that the House bill would “preempt state and local governments from regulating their own streets.” A joint letter from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, National League of Cities, Transportation for America and the Natural Resources Defense Council proclaims:

The bill would allow autonomous vehicle companies to self-certify the safety of their vehicles without an independent reviewer, and would severely limit any government from protecting the well-being of its citizens. This is akin to trusting the fox to protect the hen house, and would clear the way for automakers and tech companies to deploy hundreds of thousands of automated vehicles without adhering to stringent safety standards.

In fact, traditionally operated vehicles aren’t subject to pre-market approval either, because that would be a slow and costly system without any concrete benefit. What’s more, the safety standards already in place for traditionally operated vehicles also would apply to autonomous vehicles under the committee’s bill, just as they do now. Manufacturers of autonomous vehicles must go through a lengthy regulatory process to receive exemption from any NHTSA safety standard and must justify each deviation by demonstrating that an exempted development provides an equivalent level of safety. Ultimately, if manufacturers fail to live up to the agreement they make during the exemption process, or if vehicles prove to be problematic in practice, NHTSA still would have full authority to take them off the road using their expansive recall authority.

The legislation thus leaves the federal government well-positioned to continue protecting the well-being of all Americans with regard to vehicle safety—autonomous or otherwise—just as it has been doing with human-piloted vehicles for decades. By raising the cap on exemptions, companies will be able to conduct much more rigorous testing and deploy autonomous technologies more quickly. By avoiding a patchwork of design, performance and safety standards promulgated by local governments, they will not be driven to “shop” for friendlier regulatory environments across state lines or be forced into the compliance nightmare presented by the development of 50 or more conflicting standards.

NACTO and allies rightly point out that local governments “have made great strides to manage traffic congestion, reduce emissions and air pollution, and improve safety and mobility for people accessing jobs and opportunities.” After decades when American street design and transportation planning lagged behind international standards, many localities are catching up by implementing effective road diets, narrowing lanes and making multi-modal accommodations. But this legislation does nothing to interfere with that fine work. In fact, it relieves city and transportation planners of responsibilities that are beyond both their budgets and their core competencies.

Nothing in the House legislation prevents state and local governments from continuing to enhance the safety of their streets through improved design and regulation. Autonomous vehicles, just like human-piloted vehicles, will be responsible for following “rules of the road”, including speed limits and rights of way. And in fact, testing thus far shows that autonomous vehicles promise to be far more compliant with road regulations than citizen drivers and provide dramatically better safety outcomes.

With more than 40,000 auto fatalities in 2016, 94 percent of which were due to human error, every day that autonomous vehicles aren’t on the road means lives are lost. No one knows the safety dangers posed by human-operated automobiles better than the transportation officials that NACTO represents. Those officials should welcome the addition of highly autonomous vehicles to the toolkit of advocates for street safety.


Image by Scharfsinn