Are federal AV investigations a first step toward federal regulation? Not necessarily, experts say


Despite growing pressure for autonomous vehicle oversight, industry watchers don’t consider new NHTSA investigations into Tesla’s Autopilot and similar technologies a sign of impending change.

Published Sept. 7, 2021

By Katie Pyzyk

To date, autonomous vehicle (AV) companies have been able to advance AV technology with little federal involvement. Now some advocates and industry participants wonder whether recent actions by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to collect information on and investigate AV crashes indicate that hands-off approach is changing. 

NHTSA recently launched an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system after Tesla vehicles experienced a string of crashes into emergency management vehicles. Last week, NHTSA furthered the investigation by requesting information from Tesla about how the Autopilot system detects and responds to parked emergency vehicles on highways. The agency also issued an order in late June requiring manufacturers of AVs or other vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems to report certain crashes on public roads within a day of when they learn of the incident. 

Some believe the recent actions represent a shift in the agency’s previous hands-off approach to AVs and are a response to growing calls for federal legislation to ensure AV consumer safety.

“There seems to be mounting pressure for the federal government in their safety oversight role to have an increased engagement on autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles,” said Mark Fagan, lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Others disagree, saying NHTSA’s investigations are not a sign of a federal crackdown on the industry, nor are they a sign that developers of the technology will face roadblocks that could stall industry progress or a signal that regulatory changes are imminent. 

The reality is likely somewhere in between the hopes of those looking for greater regulation and the fears of those who warn of the chilling effect regulation could have on the advancement of AV technology.

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