Self-driving vehicle guidelines welcomed by regulators, operators and manufacturers

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By Ben Seal and Cheryl Miller

State regulators, industry attorneys and vehicle manufacturers greeted the Federal Auto-mated Vehicles Policy, published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and U.S. Department of Trans-portation on Tuesday, as a positive step toward providing clarity and preventing an undesirable patchwork of local laws.

The guidelines will serve as a model for future state and federal regulation, they say.

The 116-page policy released by the traffic safety administration includes four major components:

• 15-point safety assessment that asks carmakers to document where and how a vehicle is designed to function; how system data is recorded; what privacy and cybersecurity protections are built in and how vehicles are programmed to address potential ethical “dilemmas” on the road.

• A model state policy that covers licensing of drivers who operate autonomous vehicles, registration of driverless cars, liability and insurance.

• Current federal rules that apply to software-driven cars, including the authority to exempt manufacturers from certain design requirements to enact new rules and recall vehicles or products that pose a substantial safety risk.

• New regulations, some of which may require congressional approval, including pre-market approval of new products and technologies, oversight of post-sale software changes and enhanced data collection re-quirements.

David Strickland, a former NHTSA administrator and general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which counts Uber, Lyft, Google and Ford among its members, said the guidelines answer one of the industry’s most pressing questions by “making a clear line in the sand” on when federal and state regulatory bodies will hand off authority to one another. When a computer is driving a vehicle, the federal government will be in control, he said.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards said the guidelines validate the work of a state task force organized in June to compile recommendations for future testing of autonomous vehicles. The state is home to the first fleet of self-driving Uber taxis, in Pittsburgh, which have been carrying public passengers for less than a week. Richards said the NHTSA policy wisely delivers “just enough guidance” to allow the industry to move forward in the safest manner possible.

California State Transporta-tion Agency Secretary Brian P. Kelly called the guidance “a leap forward” that will help with safety, innovation and sustainability. Google has been testing driverless vehicles in that state for a while.

Los Angeles-based O’Mel-veny & Myers counsel Michael Reynolds, who advises automotive companies, said the guidelines are clearly intended to encourage innovation and development. He noted that nothing in the policy conflicts with regulatory action already taken by states such as California, whose Department of Motor Vehicles said Tuesday it would revise in the coming weeks the draft regulations it released last year for vehicle deployment.

Jennifer Dukarski, an intellectual property attorney at Butzel Long in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said the model state policy is a “fantastic” idea to ensure safety measures are consistent across state borders. In particular, having definitions for certain terms, such as “driver,” will go a long way toward settling some of the many quetions currently floating around, including on liability in case of an accident.

Dukarski said the 60-day public comment period that opened Tuesday will be critical for the regulatory process. She said she doesn’t expect any enforceable regulations to be promulgated within the next year.