United States: Autonomous Vehicles Continue To Move Forward

Lawrence J Hamilton II is a Partner in our Jacksonville office.


  • The U.S. Senate has been debating its version of autonomous vehicle legislation, which for the time being does not include autonomous trucks.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee's marked-up version of self-driving car draft legislation, called the "AV START Act," specifically excludes autonomous commercial vehicles exceeding 10,000 pounds. However, the bill does provide for the U.S. Department of Transportation's ongoing authority to advance automated truck technology.
  • In the meantime, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been holding workshops to discuss its new Voluntary Guidance that addresses the development and regulation of highly automated vehicles. In addition, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and other interested players remain determined to obtain federal legislation or regulations to facilitate the development and utilization of autonomous and connected commercial vehicles.

As previously reported (see Holland & Knight's alert, " Autonomous Commercial Vehicles Closer to Hitting the Road After New Developments," Sept. 25, 2017), the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 6, 2017, unanimously passed the "SELF DRIVE Act," which provides a new regulatory pathway for autonomous passenger vehicles. As noted, the SELF DRIVE Act excluded autonomous commercial vehicles in the face of vocal opposition from the Teamsters, AFL-CIO, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), as well as other labor unions and groups, who claim that autonomous commercial vehicles will lead to a significant loss of jobs in the trucking industry.

Senate Legislation

The U.S. Senate has since been debating its own version of autonomous vehicle legislation. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, attempted to include commercial vehicles in the Senate bill. However, the inclusion of autonomous trucks was opposed by labor groups and many Democrats, and would have resulted in legislation that was not a bipartisan effort. As a result, due in significant part to the debate over the potential loss of jobs, it appears for the time being that autonomous trucks will not be included in the Senate legislation. Instead, the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 4, 2017, met and marked up the bipartisan self-driving car draft legislation, which was introduced by Thune and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). Called the "AV START Act," it specifically excludes autonomous commercial vehicles exceeding 10,000 pounds. However, the bill does provide for the U.S. Department of Transportation's ongoing authority to advance automated truck technology.

The draft AV START Act is similar in most respects to the SELF DRIVE Act passed by the House. There is widespread, bipartisan support in the Senate for the development and deployment of autonomous passenger vehicles, and in the next several months the full Senate is expected to take up the AV START Act. Assuming the AV START Act passes in substantially its current form, which excludes autonomous trucks, the next step would be for the House and Senate to reconcile any differences and approve identical versions.

NHTSA Guidance Workshops

In the meantime, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been holding workshops to discuss its Voluntary Guidance, "Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety 2.0," which was issued on Sept. 12, 2017. The Voluntary Guidance addresses the development and regulation of highly automated vehicles, and is intended to assist the automotive industry and other key stakeholders as they consider and design best practices for the testing and deployment of automated driving systems, as well as assist the creation of best practices for states to develop laws and procedures for the safe operation of automated driving systems on public roadways.

NHTSA is currently working on an update to the Voluntary Guidance, which is expected to be released in 2018. At a NHTSA workshop on Oct. 20, 2017, the Voluntary Safety Self-Assessments called for by the Voluntary Guidance were discussed. NHTSA has scheduled another public meeting, to be held on Nov. 6, 2017, to "identify if further clarification is necessary to support voluntary implementation of the new Voluntary Guidance."

Additional Developments and Considerations

Clearly, developments relating to autonomous vehicles and technologies are proceeding at a brisk pace at the federal level. However, autonomous trucks are currently stalled and will likely proceed more slowly, although Sen. Thune said that he is still exploring the advancement of legislation that would include automated commercial vehicles.

Moreover, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and other interested players remain determined to obtain federal legislation or regulations to facilitate the development and utilization of autonomous and connected commercial vehicles. Toward that end, on Oct. 24, 2017, the ATA endorsed an "Automated Trucks Policy" in which the federal government is encouraged to adopt performance and technical specifications for automated and connected (including platooning) commercial trucks that would pre-empt inconsistent state laws and regulations.

In addition, on Oct. 2, 2017, the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service issued a detailed report on autonomous vehicles that described possible postal applications for autonomous technologies.

Holland & Knight's lawyers and policy advisors remain actively engaged with respect to autonomous and connected vehicles, and we will continue to provide updates on this important topic.   

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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