States Have the Power To Regulate Autonomous Vehicles—But Most Don’t

States tend to default to national standards for regulating AVs, but federal officials have been slow to implement rules directed specifically at autonomous vehicles.

April 20, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Rendering of autonomous vehicle with woman reading at the wheel

metamorworks / Autonomous vehicle

Wyatt Gordon asks whether states, more specifically Virginia, should create their own legal frameworks for regulating autonomous vehicles, or default to national standards, as many do now. “As is often the case in the United States, the regulation of autonomous vehicles is largely left to the states, resulting in a patchwork of conflicting and confusing policies where some sort of national approach ought to exist.” While states have the right to create laws regulating the technology, Gordon points out, few have taken steps to do so.

Amanda Hamm, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s connected and automated vehicle program manager, said that in the Commonwealth, “Currently AVs are basically just being treated as human drivers. Any law that applies to a person operating a vehicle also applies to whoever is operating that autonomous vehicle.”

According to Gordon, “So far the NHTSA has done little to prevent AVs from running red lights, swerving toward concrete barriers, or even killing pedestrians; however, last month the agency launched an education campaign to help consumers understand that systems like those from Tesla called “autopilot” and “full self-driving” don’t truly mean what they say (and could kill you or others).”

As an example of an existing AV program, Gordon points to Fairfax County’s Relay electric shuttle, which travels at 10 miles per hour over a one-mile route on a limited schedule, with a ‘safety steward’ on board. The shuttle is designed as a pilot for assessing the functionality of the technology and “how the shuttle itself interacts with other vehicles on the road and pedestrians,” said John Zarbo, the operations section chief at Fairfax Connector, which operates Relay. “County leaders have considered other shuttle routes around the Reston or Franconia Metro stations, but the limits of the technology have so far prohibited a second shuttle coming online. Whether it’s fast-flowing highway traffic or a complex urban environment, humans are far better at adapting their behavior to changing conditions.” 

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