The On-Ramp: An Autonomous and Connected Mobility Newsletter

11 min

Welcome to The On-Ramp, the newsletter from Venable’s Autonomous and Connected Mobility team. The On-Ramp explores legal and policy developments in the world of autonomous vehicles (“AVs”), smart infrastructure, and emerging mobility technologies, from Capitol Hill to the U.S. Department of Transportation and state capitols around the country. In this issue we review several recent developments, including NHTSA’s research on advanced driver assistance and autonomous vehicles, as well as AV-related programs in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s report on the 2022 appropriations bill.

Departments of Transportation and Interior Announce Partnership to Bring New Transportation Tech to National Parks

On November 17, 2021, Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Department of Transportation (“DOT”) Secretary Pete Buttigieg signed a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) to work together to deploy new transportation technologies on National Park Service (“NPS”) land. The stated goals of the MOU are to proactively demonstrate and integrate new technologies into park environments to enhance visitor access while protecting the environment. The MOU details a few of the demonstration projects that may be included in the partnership, including:

  • Innovative Technology Pilots — Identifying and working to resolve challenges from operating advanced transportation technologies in National Parks and other federal land contexts. Note that in 2021, the NPS piloted the use of automated vehicles (“AVs”) at Yellowstone National Park.
  • Shared Mobility Integration — Exploring how to encourage and manage the use of shared mobility services (e-scooters, dockless bikes, ride-hailing, etc.) on NPS land, to help facilitate access to parks.
  • Electrification of Major Transit Fleets — Working to replace NPS transit fleets at a number of parks with battery-powered or other zero-emission vehicles.
  • Electric Vehicle (“EV”) Charging Stations — Identifying locations for EV chargers within National Parks and on routes between parks and key population centers, to facilitate EV usage.
  • Advanced Traveler Information Systems — Integrating real-time transit, road, and parking monitoring to help park visitors.
Department of Transportation Holds Info Session on Interoperability of Emerging Transportation Technologies

On October 28, 2021, the National Operations Center of Excellence (“NOCOE”) held a webinar titled “Introduction to VOICES — A Platform for Collaborative Research and Testing.” The webinar provided background information on the Virtual Open Innovation Collaborative Environment for Safety (“VOICES”), and the potential uses the VOICES platform will have for simulating interoperability and interaction between emerging transportation technologies, including autonomous vehicles (“AVs”).

The webinar featured presentations from: (1) Robert Heilman, director of the U.S. Department of Transportation Highly Automated Systems Safety Center of Excellence (“HASS COE”); and (2) Taylor Lochrane, technical lead and manager for the Federal Highway Administration (“FHWA”) Cooperative Automation Research Program.

  • VOICES Background: Mr. Heilman stated that the VOICES platform is a virtual system that would enable virtual collaboration between stakeholder companies and government by providing a simulated environment for transportation technology testing. He stated that the platform is intended to break down silos between different modes of transportation that would be integrated in future transportation systems, such as package deliveries performed by drones in coordination with AV delivery services. Mr. Heilman noted that the VOICES platform would use architecture supplied by the Department of Defense intended to protect intellectual property of companies using the platform.
  • VOICES Value and Impact: Mr. Heilman stated that the goal of the deployment of the VOICES platform is to advance an integrated, seamless, efficient, and equitable transportation system by speeding the development of emerging transportation technologies through a collaborative simulated environment. Mr. Heilman stated that both government and industry have an interest in ensuring deployment of emerging transportation technologies is well tested in a virtual environment because the public would lose confidence in both entities if deployment is not done safely. In this portion of the presentation, he noted that the standard for the safety of AVs must be much higher than the standard for human driver, and reduce by a large margin the 35,000 traffic deaths per year on average. He also expressed that there is uncertainty regarding the timeline for market penetration of Level 4 AVs, and whether or not Level 5 AVs would exist “in our lifetimes.”
  • VOICES Next Steps: Mr. Lochrane stated that the NOCOE would host four more webinars regarding the VOICES platform in the next “three to four months.” The topics of the additional webinars will include: (1) use cases for the VOICES platform; (2) integration of VOICES with the Test and Training Enabling Architecture framework and Cooperative Automation Research Mobility Application platform; (3) technology transfer; and (4) use case testing and reporting.
NHTSA Research on Automated Driving System Crash Safety

From October 19 to 21, 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) hosted a series of panels as part of the Safety Research Portfolio Public Meeting.

Research on Automated Driving System Crash Safety

On October 21, 2021, NHTSA held a panel on automated driving system (“ADS”) crash safety. NHTSA researchers discussed multiple topics, including: (1) forward-facing crash safety; (2) rear-facing crash safety; (3) vehicle compatibility in an unoccupied ADS-equipped vehicle; and (4) crash safety in unconventional seating environments for children. During the presentation on forward-facing crash safety, Dan Parent, a mechanical engineer in NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety Research Office, stated that NHTSA is collecting data on crash safety in multiple seating positions, as well as the development of a wheelchair tiedown and occupant restraint that can be applied unassisted. Ian Hall, a research engineer at NHTSA, discussed vehicle compatibility in an unoccupied ADS-equipped vehicle. He noted that his study was focused on how the geometry and stiffness variations in an unoccupied ADS-equipped vehicle could affect occupant and structural responses in a “crash partner.” Mr. Hall explained that the crash scenarios were being tested in a simulated environment and that the size of the vehicles tested in the simulation include: (1) small, local delivery vehicles; (2) mid-size commercial vehicles; (3) large commercial vehicles; and (4) full-size tractor trailers. In a subsequent presentation, Mr. Hall noted that NHTSA is also studying the dynamic crash responses of child occupants ages 1-10 in age-appropriate child seats in a variety of “unconventional seating environments.”

NHTSA Evaluation of Pedestrian Automatic Emergency Braking

On October 20, 2021, NHTSA hosted a panel on vulnerable road user safety. As part of the panel, Heath Albrecht, a research engineer in the Applied Crash Avoidance Research Division, presented research regarding testing methods for pedestrian automatic emergency braking (“PAEB”) at night. Mr. Albrecht noted that over 75% of pedestrian fatalities occur at night and that low-light conditions are challenging for PAEB performance. He explained that NHTSA is testing existing market PAEB systems and that NHTSA is beginning to evaluate if “other sensing technology” could aid in nighttime PAEB performance. Mr. Albrecht outlined NHTSA’s PAEB low-light testing methods, which include testing PAEB systems in daylight, to establish a testing baseline, and then testing in dark conditions with street illumination and without street illumination.

Mr. Albrecht noted that in addition to existing PAEB systems using camera and radar technology, NHTSA began evaluating the potential for other sensors to enhance PAEB performance in July 2021, focusing on lidar and thermal camera technology. Mr. Albrecht stated that the current evaluation of lidar and thermal cameras in PAEB is expected to conclude in August 2022.

ADAS Research Detailed at NHTSA Safety Research Portfolio Public Meeting

On October 19, 2021, NHTSA held a panel on its advanced driver assistance system (“ADAS”) research activities. NHTSA personnel outlined current and future research activity on ADAS, which included: (1) sensor performance; (2) ADAS test conditions; and (3) sensor degradation over time/in certain conditions.

During the presentation on sensor performance, Stephen Stasko, a general engineer at NHTSA, stated that lidar is an “emerging vehicle technology,” which NHTSA does not evaluate on the same scale as camera-and radar-based systems. Later in the presentation, Mr. Stasko also noted that NHTSA is testing radar-enabled automatic emergency braking, and camera-enabled lane departure warning, with no testing of lidar-based ADAS systems. In a presentation about ADAS tests performed involving multiple road users, Garrick Forkenbrock, a senior engineer at NHTSA, explained that in the testing of level 2 ADAS, NHTSA is only testing level 2 systems in daylight hours.

Senate Appropriations Committee Report Details Several AV-Related Programs

On October 19, 2021, the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies released a report detailing Department of Transportation programs to be funded by the 2022 appropriations bill. Included in the bill are four programs related to automated vehicles (“AV”):

  • Office of the Secretary — Transportation Planning, Research, and Development

    Autonomous Vehicle Research in Rural Communities — $10,000,000 to be provided to a university or group of universities to research and work with rural communities to address “the additional challenges, including weather variables and differing types of roadways,” to bringing AVs, “including freight and delivery vehicles,” to rural areas.

  • Federal Highway Administration — Federal-Aid Highways

    Transparency in the Deployment of Automated Vehicles — The Federal Highway Administration (“FHWA”), in coordination with other relevant agencies, is directed to establish clear goals and priorities for the safe deployment of AVs on public highways and will develop an action plan that fosters “further discussion and information-sharing with relevant stakeholders and officials to help inform future policies, research, and programs." FHWA will also issue a report to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on changes within the forthcoming updates to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that will ensure the safe deployment of AVs. FHWA should continue to collate and make public AV information and is directed to update current online resources related to AVs, including its fact sheet on Environmental Justice Considerations for connected vehicles and AVs.

  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

    Automated Vehicle Occupants — "The Committee remains concerned by the lack of validated crash models for occupants who will be traveling in automated vehicles. However, the Committee is aware of NHTSA’s efforts to initiate an autonomous vehicle occupant study, in partnership with academic institutions. The Committee directs NHTSA to move forward on this study and report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations on the results of this study.”

    Consumers and Automated Vehicles — The Committee expressed concern over the accidental or deliberate misuse of “lower-level automated systems” by drivers and the potential lack of consumer understanding around such systems. The Government Accountability Office is directed to issue a report to the Appropriations Committees within one (1) year assessing: (1) what is known about consumers’ understanding of these technologies; (2) how manufacturers and governments are educating consumers about the technologies; and (3) what role the federal government has in helping consumers understand “the safety benefits of and appropriate use of these technologies."

Current appropriations will expire on December 3, 2021. The House of Representatives has currently passed nine of the required 12 appropriations bills, including: (1) agriculture appropriations; (2) energy and water appropriations; (3) financial services appropriations; (4) interior and environment appropriations; (5) labor, health and human services, and education appropriations; (6) military construction and veterans affairs appropriations; (7) legislative branch appropriations; (8) state and foreign operations appropriations; and (9) transportation, housing, and urban development appropriations.

NHTSA Releases Notice and RFC for ADS and ADAS Data Collection

On September 29, 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) released a Notice and Request for Comment (“RFC”) on its request to the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) to extend for three years the collection of incident reporting for automated driving systems (“ADS”) and level 2 advanced driver assistance systems (“ADAS”) that was established under Standing General Order 2021-01 (“SGO”) in July 2021. The OMB had previously granted NHTSA emergency approval to collect data under the SGO for six months. In the RFC, NHTSA justifies the data collection as necessary for the agency to determine if manufacturers are meeting their obligation under the Safety Act to ensure their vehicles and equipment are free of defects that pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety.

NHTSA also estimates the burden of the information requests on each individual reporting entity, based on an estimate of 200 reportable ADS crashes a year and 3,400 reportable ADAS crashes:


 Entity  1-Day Reports  10-day Incident Updates  Monthly Reports
 ADAS Manufacturers  340 hours/year  170 hours/year  2 hours/month
 ADS Manufacturers  1 hour/year  1 hour/year  15 minutes/month


Under OMB regulations, the RFC asks for public comment on the following:

(a) whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility;

(b) the accuracy of the agency’s estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information, including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used;

(c) how to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and

(d) how to minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques or other forms of information technology, e.g., permitting electronic submission of responses.

The notice gives interested parties 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register (September 30, 2021) to submit comments, making comments due Monday, November 29, 2021.

State Autonomous Vehicle Update Round-Up

While most state legislatures adjourned in the spring, states continue to advance developments related to autonomous vehicles (“AVs”). Notable updates include:

  • On October 13, 2021, the New Mexico Department of Transportation published proposed rules implementing H.B. 270, which was enacted this year to expressly authorize AV operations in the state. A public hearing on the proposed rules was held on November 16, 2021.
  • In late 2020, the Washington, D.C. City Council enacted the Autonomous Vehicle Testing Amendment Act of 2020 (“Act”), and the Act was fully funded in October 2021. The D.C. Department of Transportation now has authority to implement the Act and is expected to commence its rulemaking to implement the Act soon.
  • New York City Department of Transportation adopted rules establishing a permitting process for testing AVs in September 2021. This city-level permit process is in addition to state-level permitting requirements.