Autonomous Vehicles Present Challenges for State, Federal Policymakers

Auto repairers must stay informed, engaged.

While state legislatures are beginning to see their first round of telematics legislation and the U.S. Congress is asking questions about these new technologies – such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications – the next topic for new technology public policy is already taking shape related to autonomous vehicles.

The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments encouraged a significant leap in vehicle technology with 1996 and newer vehicles. The auto industry struggled with the service information issue for more than a decade.

Telematics has dominated industry programs and discussions during the past year. The NACE|CARS Show featured the Auto Alliance Innovation, Technology & Telematics Expo during its program in Detroit last month. The California state Senate considered legislation this year that placed significant requirements on automakers related to vehicle communication systems. The legislation died in committee.

The administration and a few states are beginning to look at autonomous vehicle public policy. IHS Automotive, a well-respected auto industry research firm, described autonomous car technology as: “… adding electronics systems that control the driving system without help from the driver. Adaptive cruise control was the first autonomous car technology, with several more in the pipeline. These advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) have developed from “warning only” systems to autonomous control features. Self-driving cars will be the end-point for the over 50 years of driver assist and ADAS improvements.”


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced in 2013 the administration’s policy on automated vehicle development. NHTSA noted that “three distinct but related streams of technological change and development are occurring simultaneously:”

  • In-vehicle crash avoidance systems that provide warnings and/or limited automated control of safety functions
  • Vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communications that support various crash avoidance applications
  • Self-driving vehicles (The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles. By design, safe operation rests solely on the automated vehicle system.)

The Rand Corporation reviewed related policy options for state and federal policymakers and noted that Nevada, Florida, California, Michigan and the District of Columbia have passed legislation “authorizing the testing of autonomous vehicles.”

There are questions as to the necessity of requiring legislative action to test these vehicles. Nevada’s statute requires that the driver of an autonomous vehicle obtain a “certificate of compliance” either from the vehicle manufacturer or from a state entity if the vehicle is to be used in a “nontesting mode.” The implication, according to Rand, is that Nevada anticipates the future commercialization of these vehicles.

NHTSA has recognized that states are moving forward with guidelines for self-driving vehicles, but has been clear with regard to recommendations for state laws: “In general, we believe that states are well-suited to address issues such as licensing, driver training and conditions for operation related to specific types of vehicles. NHTSA has considerable concerns, however, about detailed state regulation on the safety of self-driving vehicles, and has been clear that it does not recommend at this time that states permit operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing.”


IHS Automotive, in a report for automakers, emphasized a much different policy message that states should begin developing a legal framework that is “built for growing and eventual mass usage of self-driving cars, commercial vehicles and probably three-wheelers and possibly two-wheelers.”

There are needs for testing guidelines, liability questions to be resolved, the need for standards, who sets the standards, certification and security requirements. States have a full plate as these technological advances move into the marketplace.

Recently, The Guardian reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had completed a report that stated autonomous vehicles could be harmful to efforts to prevent auto theft and would provide “for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon than it is today.”

NHTSA’s outline of technology advances, occurring simultaneously, is critically important for independent repairers. Repairers have a stake in all three areas: crash avoidance, vehicle-to-vehicle technologies and self-driving vehicles. Although any or all of these areas of technology advancement may appear overwhelming at times to small-business persons, it is of foremost importance that repairers stay involved and informed of not only these new technologies, but also the public policy guidelines being developed for their implementation beyond testing.