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NHTSA crosses its fingers with autonomous vehicle guidance to states

Friday, December 2, 2016 - 09:00
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The eagerly awaited guidance from the feds on autonomous vehicles reminds me of the end of the "Wizard of Oz" where Dorothy clicks her heels three times and repeats: "I want to go home, I want to go home."

That is what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seems to be doing with its guidance, which sets out 15 “Safety Assessments” for the safe design, development, testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles, which it hopes the 50 states will adopt, making for a uniform, national regulatory environment. The agency will not establish a federal regulation such as a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS). So NHTSA is essentially clicking its heels and hoping.

The auto industry, however, was happy to have the NHTSA guidance though it attempted to thread the needle with its hope – there is that word again – that states will do the "right thing." The concern from Google, Ford, Tesla, et al is states will pass very different laws regulating autonomous vehicles, causing a nightmare for the auto manufacturers.

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"Five states have already either passed legislation or their DMVs have established rules on autonomous vehicles," says Suzanne Murtha, Project Director of Atkins, an international design, engineering and project management consultancy. "Some of those conflict with the NHTSA guidance. NHTSA had to put a stake in the ground somewhere. The good news is that 45 states haven't done anything, they are looking for guidance, and NHTSA provides it here."

David Strickland, the general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, says, " With the guidance now publicly available, we encourage state policymakers to engage with our coalition to develop the appropriate policy solutions, and we stand ready to provide support and expertise for both technological and policy questions." The coalition was established by Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber, and Volvo Cars. Strickland is a former NHTSA administrator.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators hopes the states will cooperate, but it neither issued any marching orders to its members, and, of course, it has no control over what auto laws state legislatures enact.

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