Alexander Deziel is a first-year law student at American University Washington College of Law. Alex graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in civil engineering, worked as a civil engineer for five years, and is now interested in transportation and infrastructure policy.
In 2021, traffic deaths in the United States increased by ten and a half percent from 38,824 to 42,915, which marked the highest number of deaths on American roads in a single year since 2005. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stated that human error causes ninety-four percent of serious automobile accidents. By taking human error out of the equation, autonomous vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives.
General Motors introduced the first self-driving car model at the 1939 World’s Fair, and since then, automobile manufacturers have improved the technology enough to enable a hands-free control for highway and freeway driving. Relying on sensors, actuators, algorithms, processors, and machine learning systems, autonomous vehicles are capable of sensing their environment and operating without human involvement. It is through this technology that NHTSA has created a level system to designate and explain levels of vehicle automation. Level zero is the lowest level and denotes a common car where the driver drives and monitors the road. The highest level is level five, which is full automation where a driver is not needed at all. The hands-free highway driving technology that exists today is only considered level two, but NHTSA expects level five full automation to be available in the next few years. With full automation in near the future, legislatures must prepare and create policy that both promotes autonomous vehicles and road safety for autonomous vehicles.
Since 2012, forty-one states and Washington D.C. have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles. More recently, House Representatives Debbie Dingell and Bob Latta created the bipartisan Congressional Autonomous Vehicle Caucus to educate House members in the needed framework that will allow the industry to innovate while ensuring high safety standards, and necessary policies to support the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. In the creation of the caucus, Representative Latta stated clear laws and an innovation-friendly environment are crucial in ensuring safety in vehicle innovation. In addition to the creation of the Congressional Autonomous Vehicle Caucus, NHTSA released new federal guidelines for autonomous vehicles, entitled A Vision for Safety 2.0. The guidelines come on the heels of the passage of the SELF Drive Act and focuses on levels of automation three through five, clarifies that entities do not need to wait to test or deploy their autonomous systems, and aligns federal guidance with the latest developments. The guidance also provides best practices for legislatures incorporating common safety-related components of autonomous vehicles, such as advising state legislatures to provide a technology-neutral environment and to review traffic laws and regulations that may act as a barrier to the operation of autonomous vehicles. These guidelines will provide legislators with the necessary knowledge and tools to create safer roads.
However, there is still legislative pushback on autonomous vehicles. Congressional legislation is currently stalled. Specifically, Representative Hank Johnson has stated that autonomous vehicles do not address structural issues that play a role in automobile accidents, such as roadway design and changes in speed limits. Despite the pushback, NHTSA and the Congressional Autonomous Vehicle Caucus are doing everything they can to ensure autonomous vehicles will make the roads safer.
With guidelines in place the path to safer roads is becoming clearer. Most importantly, these manufacturers can now test their autonomous vehicles on real roads. Real-world testing is necessary for the evolution of autonomous vehicles because driving often involves human judgment and common sense that is currently difficult for autonomous vehicles to interpret and effectively integrate into their systems. With a policy in place that allows for such real-world testing to be done safely, and legislators actively looking to the future, autonomous vehicles will soon be available to consumers and will provide the world with safer roads.
 David Shepardson, U.S. House Lawmakers Look to Jump-Start Self-Driving Legislative Push, Reuters (Aug. 8, 2022, 7:02 AM), https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/us-house-lawmakers-look-jump-start-self-driving-legislative-push-2022-08-08/
 Steve Shwartz, Are Self-Driving Cars Really Safer Than Human Drivers?, The Gradient (June 13, 2021), https://thegradient.pub/are-self-driving-cars-really-safer-than-human-drivers/
 History of Autonomous Cars, Tomorrow’s World Today (Aug. 9, 2021), https://www.tomorrowsworldtoday.com/2021/08/09/history-of-autonomous-cars/
 What is an Autonomous Car?, Synopsys, https://www.synopsys.com/automotive/what-is-autonomous-car.html#:~:text=An%20autonomous%20car%20is%20a,and%20operating%20without%20human%20involvement.
 Automated Vehicles for Safety, Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., https://www.nhtsa.gov/technology-innovation/automated-vehicles-safety.
 Autonomous Vehicles | Self-Driving Vehicles Enacted Legislation, Nat’l Conf. of State Legislatures (Feb. 18, 2020), https://www.ncsl.org/transportation/autonomous-vehicles.
 Dingell, Latta Host Bipartisan Autonomous Vehicle Caucus Launch Event, Debbie Dingell (Sept. 21, 2022), https://debbiedingell.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3655
 Nat’l Conf. of State Legislatures, supra note 9.
 Andrew J. Hawkins, Congress is Still Spinning its Wheels on Autonomous Vehicle Regulation, The Verge (Feb. 3, 2022, 2:59 PM), https://www.theverge.com/2022/2/3/22916045/congress-autonomous-vehicle-hearing-av-start-legislation