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What Role Will PA Play in Regulating Automated Cars and Trucks?

Safety has been of paramount importance throughout the course of the development of automated cars and trucks. As highly automated and autonomous vehicles moved from the drawing board to the prototype stage and now from the prototype stage to production models, emphasizing safety is more important than ever. As increasingly complex and progressively self-sufficient vehicles are introduced onto Pennsylvania’s and the nation’s highways, many people understandably have concerns regarding the regulations that will apply to these vehicles. Many people recognize that both state and the federal governments play a role in ensuring that unsafe or defective cars and trucks are kept off the highways. The Reiff Law Firm’s Philadelphia car accident lawyers explain how else this might affect Pennsylvania:

U.S. Department of Transportation through National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recognized that highway deaths are still a major problem despite technological advances. In 2015 alone, over 35,000 people were killed in accidents on highways and roads in the United States. According to one study cited in Traffic Safety Facts Crash Stats. (Report No. DOT HS 812 115), 94 percent of all fatal crashes can be linked in some way to human error or other human factors. The agencies believe that highly automated vehicles (HAVs) that eliminate human error are the best path forward to an accident and injury free future.

DOT Issues Federal Automated Vehicle Policy

U.S. DOT has set forth a comprehensive regulatory framework regarding the duties and responsibilities found in the regulatory process. Federal agencies such as NHTSA will implement many of the rules and policies to achieve the goal of widespread automated vehicle deployment. Responsibilities to be handled by the federal government and its agencies include:

  • Drafting and engaging in the rulemaking process regarding Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for novel equipment and features.
  • Implementing FMVSS standards prior to the sale of vehicles containing novel technologies.
  • Investigating and certifying compliance with promulgated FMVSS standards.
  • Enforcing FMVSS compliance.
  • Investigating and managing recalls due to product defects or other forms of non-compliance with FMVSS.
  • Issue performance and other guidance to automakers and vehicle parts manufacturers.

The above captures, essentially, the traditional operation of the federal government and its agencies when it comes to vehicle safety standards. While the introduction of HAVs to the nation’s vehicle fleet is unprecedented, there is no reason why the traditional rulemaking process cannot handle the regulation of these vehicles.

Will States Be Able to Regulate Aspects of Automated Vehicles?

While the federal government will handle many of the more overarching aspects of the regulation of HAVs, states such as Pennsylvania will also play a role in the process. States will continue to exercise a role in licensing drivers and registering motor vehicles in their jurisdictions. In light of increasingly complex HAVs, there may come a time when a vehicle does not require a licensed driver to be present. It is also possible that as automated vehicles come to perform more of the “driving” tasks, it may become necessary to rethink the minimum qualifications for a driver. These types of determination are likely to be handled at the state level.

In addition, the state will continue to perform their role in enacting and enforcing traffic safety laws. As HAVs are deployed and become a part of the vehicle fleet, old worries about certain driving practices or safety concerns may fall away. States may choose to revise their motor vehicle codes to eliminate rules and regulations that have been mooted by the advance of technology. Similarly, states would be free to implement new rules and standards addressing problems that emerge due to autonomous driving technologies.

Furthermore, the states would also remain in charge of developing vehicle safety inspection programs and conducting the inspections. Today, some states require vehicles to be inspected for safety. Other states do not require a safety inspection but do require emissions testing. Under the federal HAV plan, states would retain this authority. As such, in the future a state that mandates routine safety inspections may continue to require the brakes, seatbelts and airbags to be inspected but also implement new inspection requirements addressing the health of the vehicle’s operating system, whether the car’s firmware is fully updated, and if any user settings or profiles are likely to cause unexpected operations or other issues.

Finally, the states will also retain the right to regulate motor vehicle insurance and liability laws and practices. This final area of regulation is likely to see significant changes rivaling or even surpassing those changes ushered in by the no-fault reform movement. If accident and injury prevention statistics even approach projections of an accident-free future, this will represent a sea-change for the industry. It is likely that insureds will place enormous pressure on their elected representatives to repeal or loosen insurance liability requirements if accidents become so rare as to be seen as not worth insuring against. However, the real risk may lay in a broad systems outage or algorithmic error that broadly impacts all vehicles. As such, the risk that legislators may need to contend with is not that of individualized accidents caused by isolated human mistakes, but systemic failures that act more broadly.

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Pennsylvania and States’ Ability to Regulate Can Be Preempted by Federal Law

While states like Pennsylvania will continue to play a vital role in the regulation of novel vehicles including HAVs, this role is not without its limits. It is essential to note that the scope of state vehicle performance regulatory authority is limited by The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Vehicle Safety Act). The Vehicle Safety Act is a federal law that sets forth federal safety standards (FMVSS) for cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles. Due to federal supremacy, the Vehicle Safety Act pre-empts or takes precedence over, state rules and regulations.

In practice, federal pre-emption of the safety standards set forth by Pennsylvania or another state will only occur when a state issues a rule or regulation that is in conflict with a federal standard. Put differently, a state is free to issue regulations which are not addressed by a federal standard. A state is also free to issue a standard that is identical and in accord with a promulgated standard. However, a state may not implement a standard that regulates the same aspect of performance.

For instance, let’s assume that the federal government through NHTSA issues an FMVSS regarding the refresh rate and positioning of external vehicle proximity sensors. All states, including Pennsylvania, would be prohibited from enacting competing safety standards regulating these sensors unless the regulation was identical to the FMVSS. If a state were to enact competing standards, such standards would almost certainly be struck down by a federal court.

Expect Major Changes in Regulations to Address the Emergence of Highly Automated Cars and Trucks

The above sets forth a broad overview of some of the changes expected due to the introduction and expanding the rollout of automated vehicles. Both state and federal governments will play a major role in keeping drivers and consumers safe through this transitionary period. In future blog posts will be assessed and analyze some of the details and specific applications of regulatory authority at both the state and federal level. For questions on your case if you were struck by an automated vehicle, contact the Bucks County Truck Accident attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm.

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