Self-Driving Cars: The “Cars of the Future” Impacted by Regulatory Restrictions

Sara Oakes
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2019

On Friday, October 28, 2017, the National Highway Traffic-Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) announced they are striving to deregulate strict regulations currently slowing production on self-driving cars. NHTSA is seeking to deregulate in an attempt to increase the production and deployment of driverless cars. In the Rulemaking Report released by the Department of Transportation (“DOT”), NHTSA seeks comments to “identify any unnecessary regulatory barriers to Automated Safety Technologies, and for the testing and compliance certification of motor vehicles with unconventional automated vehicles designs, especially those equipped with controls instead of a human driver.”

Regulatory Purpose of NHTSA

Following the 1970 Highway Safety Act, NHTSA developed as an agency under the DOT. NHTSA regulates highway and traffic safety regulations to “save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road crashes, through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity.” The agency develops and regulates the “highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle and highway safety.” Not only does NHTSA regulate traffic and highway safety, but they also promote vehicle safety, examine vehicle defects, educate Americans on safe driving choices, and can set safety standards.

NHTSA’s regional programs allow States congressionally-allocated funds to increase traffic safety programs, and laws. NHTSA works directly with states to decrease impaired and distracted driving, roadway and construction safety, proper seat-belt and car-seat safety, wearing bicycle helmets, and encouraging efforts to save lives and prevent injuries. The national programs include: national safety campaigns, safety data, adoption of technologies to protect drivers and passengers in crashes, and compliance with Federal safety standards. NHTSA also works to increase the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks to help consumers save money, and reduce the carbon footprint that contributes to climate change.

Historically, NHTSA has been monumental in (1) providing guidelines for training EMTs; (2) establishing grant programs for combating drunk driving; (3) child passenger safety laws; (4) education on seat-belt safety and laws and “Click It or Ticket” campaign; (5) enacting the .08 BAC maximum requirement for drunk-driving; and (6) car assessment programs to establish crashworthiness ratings for new vehicles.

Historical Self-Driving Regulation

Currently, NHTSA identifies six levels of automation which range from 0: No automation to 5: Full Automation. But, federal safety standards require automakers to design automobiles developed for the human driver, such that “the driver’s foot must operate the brakes.” Manufacturers are not in compliance when the vehicles have no steering wheels or brake pads.

With these requirements requiring human drivers, many innovative companies are limited in experimenting with driverless technology, because they are not in compliance with federal law. Right now, the DOT is only allowed to exempt 2,500 vehicles annually from NHTSA rules. Limitations on exemption significantly continue to limit the opportunity for car manufacturers to sell driverless vehicles.

However, in September, NHTSA created new guidance known as A Vision for Safety 2.0, to prioritize the safety of self-driving cars, but also to allow lawmakers to withdraw regulation with best practices. This new guidance: (1) focuses on higher levels of automation (i.e. 3-5); (2) clarifies the guidance process; (3) explains that entities do not need to wait to test and deploy self-driving cars; (4) revises unnecessary design elements from safety-assessment; (5) aligns federal guidance with latest developments; and (6) clarifies federal and state roles going forward. This guidance created significant growth towards an era of driverless transportation by clarifying safety requirements, and allowing more flexibility for development of this technology.

As of last week, the most recent Rulemaking Report provided a title known as Removing Automated Safety Technologies Barriers. Right now, the NHTSA is seeking comments (1) to identify unnecessary regulatory barriers to Automated Safety Technologies (AST); and (2) research that would be required to remove barriers. The purpose of this request is to “inform NHTSA the subsequent steps in the regulatory process to amend Federal motor regulations to safely lay a path for innovative automated vehicle designs and technology.”

Effect on Consumers  

Encouraging NHTSA to deregulate driverless cars to increase production is a major and economically significant benefit to consumers. Last year alone, people making dangerous choices or errors while driving caused 94% of serious crashes. However, the heightened prevalence of driverless cars through the deregulation of driverless technologies would allow further development of technology to eliminate human error and mandate safe driving. This driverless technology already includes crash risk warnings, automatic brake, and steering controls, and has significantly decreased the number of crashes. By allowing companies to develop fully “self-driving” will likely eliminate most serious accidents in the United States. Driverless vehicles will ensure that consumers are safer on the roads and better regulation of safe driving conditions.