New federal guidelines are in the works for autonomous vehicles: what you should know

The U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and other federal agencies have developed new guidelines for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Those guidelines include best practices, tools and policies city leaders should be aware of as they plan their strategies for accommodating driverless cars, trucks, buses and other automated vehicles. And it's likely that cities could save themselves time and money by adopting and adapting the work the feds have already done with AV policies and guidelines, rather than developing their own from scratch. — Doug Peeples


Earlier this month DOT released new guidance for safely integrating automated vehicles into our multi-modal surface transportation networks. And it wasn't a top down process.

The document, referred to as Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0 (AV 3.0), is the result of input contributed by the general public, technology companies, manufacturers, motor carriers, mass transit and state and local governments in a variety of forums.

DOT's top priorities
DOT refers to its priorities in AV 3.0 as "Automation Principles." It lists six priorities, ranging from safety to regulatory updates. Here are brief summaries:

  • The number one priority is safety, for vehicle operators and occupants, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. It also includes the intent to address potential safety risks that could arise from new technologies. This priority and others are intended to augment and not replace AV safety guidelines released last year.
  • DOT will remain technology neutral and its policies will reflect its decision to ensure the public and not the government choose the technologies and transportation solutions they want.
  • Outdated regulations will be discarded or modernized to ensure that automated vehicle development isn't hampered by them.
  • The agency will promote regulatory consistency by working with state and local governments to build consensus on technical standards and policies. This is a critical area. While as of last year more than 30 states had enacted AV legislation, there still seem to be few examples of states collaborating with each other on those issues.
  • DOT guidance will take several forms, including pilot programs, best practices and other tools to support AV technology development and adoption.
  • While DOT sees AVS as a way to improve mobility for disabled and older citizens, the agency says its guidelines are not intended to prevent people from driving their own cars. As DOT explained in a news release, "We will protect the ability of consumers to make the mobility choices that best suit their needs."

It's also worth mentioning that the guidelines refer to far more than autonomous cars on streets and highways. It also involves research and regulatory overhauls for trucking, automated vehicle use in ports, railroad crossing safety and other areas.

Street level guidance
For example, the  Federal Highway Administration is updating its manual on uniform traffic control devices for streets and highways. Last revised in 2012, it will be updated to accommodate AVs and to streamline the process for cities and states that want to adopt new technologies by making it more flexible.

The public comment period for AV 3.0 ends on December 3, 2018. Click the link to download the complete document.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.