Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022
A new President and a changing administration mean new priorities across some, if not all of the major executive agencies. One of the more heavily impacted industries will be transportation—specifically the automotive sector. From re-instating stricter emissions standards to moving forward with automated vehicle regulations, the automotive industry in the early 2020s should see innovation and progress at the forefront of the country’s new federal regulatory scheme.
A changing landscape
Both the buying habits of the American people and the (lack of) focus of the Trump administration chilled the country’s prioritization on alternative fuels and electrification within the automotive industry. Though it’s unlikely that it affected automakers’ long-term goals toward these ends, the short-term message was that regulations had eased, and punishment for non-compliance would, too. While good news for manufacturers concerned with costly fines in the immediate, others expressed concern that complacency would hinder the US market’s ability to keep pace with the developments of other global industry leaders.
In the short time since the election and inauguration, lawmakers and regulators have already taken steps to put the industry back on the fast track toward the future. So far, this has been done in two key areas: greenhouse gas emissions and autonomous driving.
President Biden made waves when he announced plans to undo the rollbacks instituted during the previous administration. While some of these executive orders amount to little more than policy statements, they signal a full-scale endorsement to undo, challenge, or drop the relaxed regulations of the Trump administration, and enact more aggressive ones in their stead.
The plans seem to be working, as GM announced just a week later that they pledged to sell exclusively zero-tailpipe emissions light-duty vehicles by 2035. While that might prove difficult now, it will undoubtedly make compliance with the eventual regulations of this administration, and any future administrations, easier in the long run. Other manufacturers have made similar pledges in the past, but with even stricter and more definite regulations taking form, the threat of non-compliance looms large.
Another area not receiving as much press, but equally as important, is autonomous vehicle regulation—of which, federally, there is none. A growing list of states have regulations or laws, but they are limited in scope. Most center around the testing procedures of Level 3, 4, and 5 (mostly to fully autonomous) vehicles, while the technology finds its footing.
Illinois, for its part, currently has little legal language on automated vehicle use. 625 ILCS 5/11–208(e-10) is the only statute addressing the issue, and it simply forbids local governments from enacting ordinances to prohibit automated vehicle use. No regulation is in place. In 2018, Governor Rauner established the Autonomous Illinois Testing Program, to be administered by the Illinois Department of Transportation. However, laws to guide are far off on the horizon.
The most the federal government had mustered during the previous administration were guidance documents and policy statements from the Department of Transportation (“USDOT”)—the latest of which is called AV 4.0. Released in early 2020, its long title is Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies, a joint release by the USDOT and the National Science & Technology Council. It is the fourth iteration of an evolving research endeavor into the technology behind autonomous vehicles and how they may be functionally implemented into everyday life. While it’s nice to see the resources invested, it amounts to little in actuality.
However, two key actions have been taken in just the short time that President Biden was elected and took office: the first was USDOT releasing an update to AV 4.0, the more robustly titled Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan, in which it plans to begin laying the framework for federal regulation.
The second key measure, a precursor to this Comprehensive Plan, was USDOT’s publishing of advanced notice of proposed rulemaking and request for comments in the Federal Register for a “Framework for Automated Driving System Safety.” This piece of federal regulation, promulgated by NHTSA (under USDOT), will attempt to “define, assess, and manage the safety of ADS [Automated Driving System] performance while ensuring the needed flexibility to enable further innovation.”
Hit the road
While it isn’t much, it is the first real, concrete step in implementing automated vehicle regulation on the national scale. With a piecemeal system already in place from state to state, a centralized authority on the testing and initial rollout of this evolving technology will help provide guidance.
By filling in gaps, defining key terms, and identifying key areas of priority, regulation will aid in nudging manufacturers towards an industry compliance standard. All interested parties—car makers, law makers, drivers, and bystanders—have something at stake in this rapidly accelerating technology. Making sure we’re all on the same route will be key.