While automated cars are still not in the mainstream just yet, it is clear that self-driving vehicles are bound to be a huge part of the future of transportation in America. Seeing this inevitability, state and local governments as well as the federal government, have taken steps towards regulating the fledgling industry to make sure the technology is made available to everyone and to ensure it is kept reasonably safe, both for the people who use it and to innocent members of the public.
Unfortunately, the important process of regulating self-driving vehicles in Maryland has been hampered by several factors. The first is that self-driving vehicles are still a hypothetical technology. Regulating them involves a necessarily imperfect vision of what could go wrong. The second and most dangerous factor has been Maryland's business-first approach towards regulation. The government's reluctance to dictate safety requirements on the self-driving car industry puts the public at risk by allowing businesses to make things only as safe as is necessary to preserve their profits.
No Federal Laws Concerning Self-Driving Cars
The federal government has the ability to trump state and local laws by writing laws and regulations that preempt those made by smaller governments. As of April 2019, Congress has not passed an overarching law dealing with self-driving cars, though.
They came close to passing one with the Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act, or the AV Start Act, which was proposed in 2017. However, the bill died in the Senate at the end of the congressional term, forcing lawmakers to start anew with a new Congress.
The demise of the AV Start Act, though, was probably a good thing for safety. The bill had been pushed by self-driving car companies, and many of them lamented its failure, indicating just how friendly the bill was to business. Meanwhile, safety advocates had nearly all come out against the bill, especially after it became clear that the bill allowed self-driving cars to meet lower safety standards than those already in place for regular vehicles.
Federal Regulations are All Voluntary
There are two major agencies in the federal government that can pass binding regulations that would impact self-driving cars: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). While these two agencies are in a position to require self-driving car companies to take specific steps to ensure the safety of the public, though, they have not done so, yet.
The most that these federal agencies have done is issue purely voluntary guidelines that are nothing more than a listing of things that self-driving car companies should consider when they design and manufacture autonomous vehicles. Most of these guidelines are contained in the pamphlet Automated Driving Systems (ADS): A Vision for Safety 2.0. Even this booklet, though, acknowledges the contradicting goals of the federal government on the issue of self-driving cars: “The Federal Government wants to ensure it does not impede progress with unnecessary or unintended barriers to innovation. Safety remains the number one priority…”
Simply put, if safety were the number one priority, the NHTSA and the DOT would be heavily regulating self-driving cars to make absolutely certain that they are safe to use, and to ensure that they would not put innocent bystanders in harm's way.
Instead, the agencies have issued guidance that does not have an enforcement mechanism, and which companies are free to ignore if they choose. The content of that guidance is also little more than a listing of things that self-driving car companies “should consider” in the design and manufacturing process, like:
- Making a vehicle that is designed to withstand a collision
- Designing sensors that detect all of the potential hazards outside the car
- Recording data about the vehicle's journey and how it evaluates and reacts to dangers
- Post-crash protocols, like remaining on the scene, but in ways that do not imperil the passenger
An update to the voluntary guidance package that the NHTSA and DOT unveiled has raised even more concerns about the federal government's interests in regulating self-driving cars. That update, Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0, emphasized the structured role of the government in regulating autonomous vehicles. By stressing the fact that Congress has the power to preempt state and local laws and regulations for self-driving cars, the update insinuates that states like Maryland should wait for the federal government to lay the groundwork, or risk their entire regulatory structure being thrown out by conflicting rules.
This hands-off approach is deeply troubling, especially considering how some of the companies leading the charge towards self-driving vehicles, like Uber, have a proven track record of paying short shrift for the safety of the public while they do everything they can to maximize their profit. Letting these companies “regulate themselves” is almost guaranteed to result in innocent people getting seriously hurt.
Maryland's Lack of Laws Concerning Self-Driving Vehicles
Similar to the federal government, all of the proposed laws that deal with self-driving vehicles in Maryland have failed to pass the state legislature.
Both of Maryland's proposed bills, House Bill 2013 and Senate Bill 902, are nearly identical and were proposed within a week of each other in February 2017. Both went to transportation committees in the House and Senate, and both committed reported unfavorably on the proposed bills.
Both bills would have expressly created a process by which self-driving car makers could have their vehicles tested on the roads of Maryland. Under the proposed bills, no self-driving car could be tested on the roads of Maryland without approval. The bills also provided some important definitions that would likely have become the groundwork for further laws dealing with autonomous vehicles and even required certain features to be present in any self-driving vehicle that could be tested in the state, including:
- An automated driving system
- Crash notification technology
- A data recording system that noted information like the status of the driving system and the speed, direction, and location of the vehicle for at least a certain period of time before a crash
- Adequate car insurance
Maryland Self-Driving Car Regulations
However, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) has moved forward with regulations of its own, in the absence of legislation that reins it in.
One of these regulations has been the creation of a process that allows self-driving car makers to apply for and receive permits to test automated vehicles on Maryland roads – similar to the core piece of the legislation that failed to pass the Maryland legislature. Self-driving car companies can complete an Expression of Interest form before turning to the permitting process for testing self-driving cars in Maryland.
Companies that receive a permit to test their self-driving vehicles can use the handful of places in Maryland that have been designated to allow these kinds of testing. None of these testing facilities, however, allow self-driving cars to venture into uncontrolled driving conditions – they are all parking lots, paved surfaces, or test courses that isolate automated vehicles from the general public. While this keeps other drivers safe, it also drastically undermines the interest that self-driving car companies have in testing their vehicles in Maryland: Most of the testing that has to be done involves organically inserting autonomous vehicles into the world and coping with the dangers that it discovers, there.
Additionally, the MDOT has created the Connected and Automated Vehicles Working Group to help the state agency develop rules and regulations for self-driving cars in the future. The Working Group's role is to keep track of recent self-driving research, watch other states' regulatory schemes for autonomous vehicles, and gather input from stakeholders and safety advocates over how to handle self-driving cars in the state.
This Working Group consists of several SubGroups, including:
- The Emergency Responder SubGroup, which examines issues and training that police, firefighters, and EMS crews will have to handle because of self-driving car developments
- The Freight SubGroup, which looks at how autonomous vehicles will impact the trucking business
- The Policy SubGroup, which tracks self-driving vehicle legislation and regulations in Maryland and other states and makes advisory comments
- The Technical SubGroup, which looks at logistical issues presented by self-driving vehicles, like the actual testing of autonomous vehicles in Maryland
Maryland Personal Injury Lawyers at Gilman & Bedigian
So far, and in spite of the constant acknowledgments that the government needs to get in front of the autonomous vehicle revolution, the regulations that are supposed to keep self-driving cars safe for passengers and bystanders have raised serious concerns. Business interests are being catered to, and public safety is going to pay for it.
That is why the personal injury lawyers at the Baltimore law offices of Gilman & Bedigian are getting ready to legally represent victims who have been hurt in self-driving car accidents. By advocating for the rights of victims and striving to recover the compensation they deserve, we can also hold self-driving car companies accountable for their risky behavior. Contact us online if you ever get hurt by an autonomous vehicle and want to explore your legal options.