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Bill Canis, Issues in Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Deployment (CRS Report R45985) (updated Nov. 27, 2019) (full-text).


In recent years, private and government testing of autonomous vehicles has increased significantly, although it is likely that widespread use of fully autonomous vehicles — where no driver attention is needed — may be many years in the future. The pace of autonomous vehicle commercialization may have slowed due to the 2018 death in Arizona of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous vehicle, which highlighted the challenges of duplicating human decision-making by artificial intelligence. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the fatality was caused by an "inadequate safety culture" at Uber — which was testing the vehicle — and deficiencies in state and federal regulation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA have issued three reports since 2016 that inform the discussion of federal autonomous vehicle policies, suggesting best practices that states should consider in driver regulation; a set of voluntary, publicly available self-assessments by automakers showing how they are building safety into their vehicles; and a proposal to modify the current system of granting exemptions from federal safety standards.

Proponents of autonomous vehicles contend that lengthy revisions to current safety regulations could impede innovation, as the rules could be obsolete by the time they took effect. Federal and state regulatory agencies are addressing vehicle and motorist standards, while Congress is considering legislative solutions to some of the regulatory challenges.

Legislation did not pass the 115th Congress due to disagreements on several key issues. These included the following:

  • The extent to which Congress should alter the traditional division of vehicle regulation, with the federal government being responsible for vehicle safety and states for driver-related aspects such as licensing and registration, as the roles of driver and vehicle merge.
  • The number of autonomous vehicles that NHTSA should permit to be tested on highways by granting exemptions to federal safety standards, and which specific safety standards, such as those requiring steering wheels and brake pedals, can be relaxed to permit thorough testing.
  • The extent to which vehicle owners, operators, manufacturers, insurers, and other parties have access to data that is generated by autonomous vehicles, and the rights of various parties to sell vehicle-related data to others.

Congress may address these issues in legislation reauthorizing surface transportation programs. The current surface transportation authorization expires at the end of FY2020. Policy decisions about the allocation of radio spectrum and road maintenance also may affect the rate at which autonomous vehicle technologies come into use.