WASHINGTON — As autonomous vehicle testing advances without cohesive federal guidelines, companies are operating under inconsistent or nonexistent rules for how and whether a vehicle is monitored and controlled on the road.
There are no federal rules requiring companies testing self-driving vehicles on public roads to have the ability to control them remotely. And of the five states where companies most frequently test autonomous vehicles — California, Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida — Pennsylvania is the only one to require that a human have the ability to take over controls if need be, mandating that a driver be in the car while it's tested.
Safety advocates argue the complex and varied rules for remote monitoring, guidance and control are emblematic of a larger problem: Autonomous vehicles in the U.S. remain largely unregulated, making it difficult to track safety progress as the technology advances.
Companies developing autonomous vehicles say there is a need for federal regulation — for example, a built-in system for mass testing of AVs, rather than seeking a limited waiver that allows companies to deploy just a small number — but that requirements for remote control should not be one of them.
While federal rules for remote control technology are nonexistent, AV companies encounter different rules depending on where they test.
Michigan, Arizona and Florida require the vehicles meet a "minimal risk condition," an industry term that doesn't have a strict definition but usually means the vehicle can safely pull itself out of traffic in the case of an emergency or malfunction, stop and turn on its hazards.
Thirteen other states — Washington, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York — have also reported that they have tested autonomous vehicles at some point. None of these states require remote control capabilities either, though Washington and Ohio require remote guidance abilities; New Mexico, Maryland, New York and Massachusetts require a human operator behind the wheel; and Georgia and Utah require vehicles meet a minimal risk condition.
California has a similar rule for vehicles being tested without a driver. But it's the only major AV testing state that monitors how companies are testing, requiring that they send detailed information to the state describing any accidents that happen on public roads.
"The reality is that no federal legislative or regulatory structure has been built around the testing or deployment of self-driving vehicles on public roads," said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.
"As a result, oversight has been left to the states and as one might as expect, it is a patchwork, which at best asks manufacturers to promise their vehicle will minimize risk when autonomous technology encounters a situation its programming is not prepared to handle, and at worst remains entirely silent. There is little rhyme or reason to explain which states have allowed this technology on their roads without drivers either in the vehicle or operating remotely."