Sitting on the soft sandy ground just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on a blustery and windy day late in December of 1903, one must have had the peculiar feeling of being on the cusp of great change. The crude flying machine the Wright Brothers piloted did more than carry a man above the ground for 12 seconds and 120 feet; it marked the inception of a new era: the era of powered flight had begun.
The world changed that day, but it took many years, a couple of world wars, and countless incremental changes for aviation to evolve from an obscure hobby of tinkerers to the commercial endeavor that (usually) seamlessly moves the world. In the same way, automated vehicles (AVs) are gradually evolving and developing as a technological, and eventually, commercial endeavor. On the way, there will be many incremental changes, certainly some governmental encouragement and guidance when needed, and doubtlessly a few developmental speed bumps – but eventually, this technology will change the way the world moves.
In the meantime, what needs to be done? There are many issues to address, but from a policy perspective, AVs present a particularly unique and vexing regulatory problem. The traditional distribution of responsibility for road transportation regulation is that the federal government regulates vehicles, while states regulate drivers. With an AV, the vehicle is the driver. As a result, governments are scrambling to define their roles in this new world.
California and Nevada both passed legislation and developed regulations for AV testing, and other states are quickly following their lead. Shortly thereafter, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA – the organization responsible for regulating vehicle safety) proposed recommended principles to guide state legislation and regulation. These cautious and tentative steps taken by both levels of government are trying to balance the need to ensure roadway safety while simultaneously not impeding the technology’s development.
While the proper roles of government in our federalist system are messily being hashed out, there are many important technical and regulatory issues to address as well. The current roadway system is specifically designed to meet the needs of human drivers. Road signs and pavement markings are generally clearly visible to human drivers, but is the same true for a digital camera mounted in the grill of a vehicle? Will we need a Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) for both AVs and human drivers? As state DOTs’ emphasis shift from adding roadway capacity to expanding ITS and connected vehicle implementation, will our states have the funding, knowledge, skills, and expertise to build and operate a smart transportation system that talks to and works well with AVs?
There are many miles to go and many issues to address. Change is often slow to come and difficult to handle. Still, the promise of a better transportation future is as palpable today as it was on that cold morning in Kitty Hawk.