Brews on the Move

San Francisco startup Otto made the world’s first autonomous truck delivery yesterday.  The freight in question?  50,000 cans of Budweiser.  Otto’s 18-wheeler, made autonomous by $30,000 of hardware and software of Otto’s own design, navigated the 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.  The Uber-owned startup’s new autonomous technology would allow for the 10.5 billion tons of the nation’s freight to be transported sans driver, at least while the truck remains on the Interstate.  Human drivers are still needed for more complicated city environments.  At least for now.

This development raises interesting questions about the applicability of federal law and policy to aftermarket technology solutions that enable autonomous driving.  Otto’s $30,000 kit is designed to make autonomous any truck built since 2013.  

Recent work by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) within the U.S. Department of Transportation indicates that the agency is thinking about aftermarket automation in developing a regulatory regime for autonomous vehicles.  Last month, NHTSA issued the first Federal Automated Vehicles Policy to guide the development and deployment of automated vehicles.  The guidance is aimed not only at “traditional vehicle manufacturers,” but also other entities innovating in this space, including those that “outfit any vehicle with automation capabilities or [highly automated vehicles] equipment for testing, for commercial sale, and/or for use on public roadways.”  Moreover, existing law governing the safety and recall of motor vehicles applies to manufacturers and distributors of “motor vehicle equipment,” which includes aftermarket parts and components sold for the “improvement” of a motor vehicle.

Currently, there is no federal legal barrier to the sale and operation of autonomous vehicles in the United States, provided the vehicles comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.  It is NHTSA’s intention that all entities operating in this space will use the Automated Vehicles Policy, in conjunction with industry standards and best practices, to “ensure that their systems will be reasonably safe under real-world conditions.”  To this end, NHTSA has suggested that it may in the future require vehicle and equipment manufacturers to submit a “concise and complete” Safety Assessment to NHTSA’s Office of Chief Counsel for each autonomous vehicle system tested or deployed. 

In the meantime, NHTSA requests that entities submit voluntary reports on how the Policy is being followed.  Perhaps an analysis of Otto’s beer run is forthcoming.


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