In 2015, the University of Michigan excitedly announced MCity, a state-of-the-art test track for “connected and automated” vehicle technology and an exciting development for the prospect of a driverless transportation system. The expansive fake city, unique at the time, received funding from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and private companies alike. Quickly, MCity extended beyond the testing grounds to the streets of Ann Arbor. By 2017, Michigan students could expect “driverless shuttle buses” around the engineering campus, and researchers were monitoring “1,500 [local] cars… to develop connected-car” technology. Ann Arbor recently welcomed A2GO, an “autonomous shuttle service” by May Mobility— a local startup that works closely with MCity.
Ann Arbor should not be unique or exceptional in its pursuit of automated vehicle technology. Unfortunately, federal guidance on autonomous (used interchangeably with automated) vehicles is inconsistent and slow. I will first cover DOT’s struggle to keep up with rapid innovation, despite an open mind. Then, I will review progressive state and local government action and its success and even administrative efficiency. Although DOT oversight is perhaps necessary in the long-term rollout of autonomous vehicles, right now manufacturers need support at the local and state level for research and development.
As previously mentioned, federal administration lags behind the demands of private innovation driven at increasing motor vehicle safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “the agency responsible for motor vehicle safety” within DOT, “takes about five years to complete a rulemaking on an issue of medium complexity.” Autonomous vehicle implementation is substantially more complicated than “medium complexity” — it requires a complete rethinking on how humans travel on our nation’s highways Currently, large technology companies, startups, traditional vehicle manufacturers, local governments, and state governments all rely on NHTSA’s guidance for their innovation.
Even when NHTSA does rule, it has a history of inconsistency. In 2016, Google voluntarily requested that NHSTA clarify how the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) applied “to a vehicle that lacks manual driving controls and is exclusively operated by an Automated Driving System.” NHTSA responded that if it could not “verify a vehicle’s compliance using the existing FMVSS [recommended] testing standards and procedures,” the vehicle would not comply with the FMVSS. For four years, the autonomous vehicle industry waited in limbo for more specific design guidelines.
Eventually, NHTSA updated its stance on what had commonly become known as the Google Interpretation. NHTSA wrote that the Google Interpretation was inconsistent with its history of simply encouraging “reasonable care” on part of the manufactures for FMVSS compliance and allowed manufacturers to certify outside of the FMVSS testing procedures.Nevertheless, NHSTA left critical limitations on autonomous vehicle design in “substantive performance requirements such as having a manual foot break petal. Since, NHTSA resorted to issuing exemptions for autonomous vehicle projects and issuing rulemaking on some of the traditional driving components that conflict with NSHTA’s modified Google ruling.
While NHSTA sorted out its regulatory inconsistencies, state governments legislated and significantly advanced opportunities for autonomous vehicles development. In 2013 and again in 2016, Michigan “approved legislation allowing for pilot testing.” Besides the innovation encouraged within Ann Arbor, Michigan government is exploring options for infrastructure adaption. In 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a “corridor dedicated to just autonomous vehicles” that connects Detroit and Ann Arbor. Although the initiative comes with a 24-month research period as a large caveat, such exploration alone is a critical step in fostering public-private cooperation for autonomous vehicle development.
States also cooperated amongst themselves to test revolutionary autonomous vehicle programs. In 2021, a partially autonomous “truck platoon” successfully travelled between Pittsburgh and Detroit. Along with multiple leaders at the state level such as Michigan and Pennsylvania contributing, local governments like Pittsburg foster autonomous vehicle regulation by requiring testing and crash reporting.
Agreement on the efficacy of a state and local government focus far from unanimous. Some groups caution state leadership, especially where Michigan’s definition of manufacturer threatens to block “all but major automobile manufactures out of the autonomous vehicle and ride sharing market, or other states like California using market power to dominate regulation. Others fear “regulatory patchwork.” Regardless of tensions between the federal, state, and local levels, autonomous vehicles rollout is in its infancy. However, one thing is clear: both private manufacturers and the federal government need time. Private actors need the space to develop technologies to the point of mass production before they can face nationwide regulation. The DOT needs time to reinvent itself to recognize the continuous innovation of the 21st century and a United States where drivers’ control is of decreasing importance. States act as an important bridge to respond to frequent change.
Joseph Jazwinski is an Associate Editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review.