Among the most advanced automated vehicle technology is the autonomous vehicle, sometimes referred to as a self-driving car. Several companies are testing such vehicles, which are intended to create safer road conditions by reducing human driver error and therefore decreasing the chance of vehicle crashes. Proponents of autonomous vehicles suggest that these automobiles will avoid crashes, reduce traffic congestion, and expand transportation options for groups such as people with disabilities and older adults with limited mobility.

Nevada was the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles in 2011. Since then, seven other states—California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah—along with the District of Columbia have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles. Arizona's governor issued an executive order on this technology. Each state establishes its own specific regulation for testing.

Federal and state policymakers are examining both consumer and safety issues. Consumer issues relate to ensuring the privacy and security of the autonomous vehicle’s data and establishing how best to determine liability in the event of a crash. Safety issues require investigation of how autonomous vehicles will interact with non-autonomous vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorized users. In addition, a key safety question is whether autonomous vehicle technology can keep human drivers alert in case they need to take quick control. And robust testing can help ensure that the technology is safe.

In 2016, the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued updated guidance for the safe development of highly autonomous vehicles (HAVs). NHTSA made clear that states retain their traditional responsibilities for vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and motor vehicle insurance and liability regimes. Separately, NHTSA issued an enforcement bulletin regarding its authority to issue recalls on such automated technology, with a particular focus on semiautonomous technologies in which the driver must be able to resume control at a moment’s notice. NHTSA believes this technology could result in increases in distracted driving and associated crashes.

Still unknown is how HAVs will affect the level of congestion and livability within and around our cities. Many questions remain. Will people continue to own their vehicles and mostly travel alone or will shared vehicles become more prevalent? Will people keep their cars parked in remote parking lots? Will people send their empty driverless cars on many unlinked errands? As travel options expand, will there be more vehicles on the road? Will people be willing to live farther from their jobs, resulting in longer commutes?

This disruptive technology offers an opportunity to correct some of the systemic problems with the US transportation system, which today often requires people to own and operate their own personal vehicles for mobility. This leads to problems for the one-third of people living in the US who do not drive. Moving forward, shared-use mobility—such as car-sharing, ride-sharing, ride-splitting—may be a tool to influence development patterns and individual travel choices.


Design and Use of Autonomous Vehicles


Policymakers should:

  • prioritize safety for all road users in regulating autonomous vehicles;
  • establish standards for thorough testing of autonomous vehicles prior to their deployment and require manufacturers to publish the results of such testing;
  • bar the use of partially automated vehicles on non-controlled access roads, such as city streets;
  • ensure consumer security and privacy (see Chapter 11, Financial Services and Consumer Products—Digital Privacy and Security); and
  • require customer education and training on advanced vehicle technologies.

Ensuring equitable integration with the larger transportation system



Policymakers should ensure that system implementation of highly automated vehicles creates a more equitable transportation system that improves mobility for all.

Policymakers should encourage vehicle designers and manufacturers to apply universal design that is accessible to all.

Policymakers and the private sector should conduct research on highly automated vehicles to evaluate the technology’s impact on livable communities, including the potential to increase shared-use mobility.

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