The On-Ramp: An Autonomous and Connected Mobility Newsletter

11 min

Welcome to The On-Ramp, the newsletter published by Venable's Autonomous and Connected Mobility team. The On-Ramp explores legal and policy developments in the world of autonomous vehicles, smart infrastructure, and emerging mobility technologies, from Capitol Hill to the U.S. Department of Transportation and beyond.

February and March saw activity in Congress pick up as the House of Representatives and Senate moved past the procedural matters associated with the start of a new Congress. The Biden administration also released the president's proposed budget for fiscal year 2024. This has kicked off what will continue to be a busy period of budget hearings over the coming months. Recent activity on the Agency side has ranged from the announcement of a new grant program for electric vehicles to the publication of an exemption petition for autonomous trucks.

White House Updates

Biden Administration Releases FY24 Budget Proposal

On March 9, 2023, the Biden administration released the president's fiscal year 2024 (FY24) budget proposal. The budget lays out the administration's priorities and projects for federal spending in FY24 and plans for $6.9 trillion in spending. The president's budget offers a starting point for negotiations in Congress, which will ultimately pass spending bills following reconciliation of proposals from the Senate and House of Representatives.

Notable requests by the president's budget include:

  • $27.8 billion in discretionary budget authority for the Department of Transportation
  • $76.1 billion for highway, highway safety, and transit formula programs, supporting amounts authorized in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and to support the build-out of the national electric vehicle charging network
  • $1.3 billion for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to allow it to conduct research to reduce roadway fatalities and injuries.
  • $60 million for the IIJA Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program to build safe walking and bicycling facilities that connect people with public transportation, businesses, workplaces, schools, and other communities.
  • $16.5 billion in discretionary budget authority for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
  • An increased investment of up to $3.5 billion for the facilities and systems that make up the National Airspace System (NAS) to allow the FAA to address maintenance and modernization of the NAS, and to ensure the NAS continues to safely accommodate growth in traditional commercial aviation traffic alongside new entrants from the commercial airspace, unmanned aircraft, and advanced air mobility industries
  • $52 billion in discretionary budget authority for the Department of Energy, complementing funding provided in the Inflation Reduction Act, to support the Loan Program Office administrative expenses for originating and overseeing the growth in the financing of clean energy and advanced technology vehicle manufacturing projects
  • $123 million for the Department of Homeland Security to support market-shaping investments in zero-emission vehicles

Congressional Activity

House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Authorization Plan

On February 9, 2023, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a full committee markup to consider its Authorization and Oversight Plan for the 118th Congress. Per the new House Rules package adopted at the beginning of the new Congress, each standing Committee—other than the Committee on Appropriations, the Committee on Ethics, and the Committee on Rules—must adopt its authorization and oversight plan for that Congress in an open hearing.

The Energy and Commerce plan states that the Committee will focus on (1) cutting government spending through the elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse; and (2) ensuring laws are adequate to protect the public interest or are being implemented in a manner that protects the public interest, without stifling economic growth.

There were a series of amendments offered by Democratic representatives during the markup, including one from Rep. Dingell (D-MI) related to oversight of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement of fuel economy standards, and one from Rep. Clarke (D-NY) related to workforce considerations in the context of autonomous vehicle (AV) deployment. None of the amendments were adopted.

According to the plan, the Committee intends to focus oversight efforts in areas such as Innovation, Data, and Commerce, including AVs; Communications and Technology, including spectrum management; and Energy and Environment Issues, among others.

Hearings and Nominations
  • Biden Administration Announces Nominee for NHTSA Administrator. On March 27, 2023 Ann Carlson's nomination to serve as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was sent to the Senate. The Biden administration first announced its intent to nominate her for the role on February 13, 2023. Ms. Carlson has been serving as acting administrator of NHTSA since September 2022. In January 2023, Sophie Shulman was named deputy administrator. Ms. Shulman most recently served as deputy chief of staff for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). Ms. Carlson has not received a nomination hearing at the time of publication.

U.S. Department of Transportation Activity

Department of Transportation Holds Webinar on VRU Safety

On March 17, 2023, the Department of Transportation (DOT) Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS/JPO) held a webinar on "Enhancing the Safety of Vulnerable Road Users at Intersections." The purpose of the webinar was to discuss how DOT envisions leveraging emerging technologies to enhance the safety of vulnerable road users (VRUs) at intersections.

The webinar also provided a summary of comments received on, and key takeaways from, a Request for Information (RFI) that DOT released in September 2022. The RFI sought input from commenters on the possibility of adapting existing and emerging automation technologies to accelerate the development of real-time roadway intersection safety and warning systems for both drivers and VRUs in a cost-effective manner that will facilitate deployment at scale.

Dr. Robert Hampshire, deputy assistant secretary for research and technology and chief science officer, provided introductory remarks during the webinar. Presenters included Dr. Govind Vadakpat, program manager, Smart Infrastructure, ITS/JPO; Dr. Chris Atkinson, deputy director for advanced research, Office of the Secretary for Research and Technology; and Brian Cronin, director, Office of Safety and Operations Research and Development, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The webinar also highlighted a recent report from the Department that summarizes insights from responses to the RFI and how those responses informed DOT's efforts on intersection safety and safety initiatives in other departments.

Department of Transportation FY24 Budget Requests

Following the Biden administration's release of the president's FY24 proposed budget on March 9, 2023, the Department of Transportation (DOT) published its budget requests for FY24.

Highlights from DOT's budget requests include:

  • $1.3 billion for the NHTSA, including $304.1 million for the Operations and Research General Fund. This includes:
    • $35.7 million for Automation Safety, which would be used for expanded rulemaking, enforcement, and research activities to translate automation technology into safety improvements. This funding would also allow for additions to NHTSA's Office of Automation Safety workforce to support the safe deployment of automated driving systems by developing and setting standards, evaluating exemption petitions, and overseeing safety demonstrations.
  • $1 billion from IIJA advance appropriations to help states build on the EV charging network funded by the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program.
  • $500 million for the Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program.
  • A $26 million line item for the Office of the Secretary's budget for the electric vehicle general fund.
FMCSA Publishes Notice of Exemption Petition Regarding Truck Warning Triangles

On March 9, 2023 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) posted a notice and request for comment on an exemption petition submitted by multiple AV truck developers. The companies are seeking a 5-year exemption from regulations that require placement of warning devices around a stopped commercial motor vehicle (CMV) and that require lamps for warning devices to be steady-burning. The petition seeks utilization of a warning device for stopped vehicles that is not currently allowed by Agency rules. The request would allow the petitioners to operate Level 4 CMVs equipped with warning beacons mounted on the truck cab in lieu of traditional warning devices. The petitioners state in their submission that they believe it is possible to achieve the safety purpose of the warning device in an alternative way, specifically through the use of forward- and rearward-facing amber flashing lights mounted on the cab at a height above the upper edge of the sideview mirrors. The exemption was filed by petitioners on behalf of a class of motor carriers operating autonomous driving system (ADS)-equipped CMVs and is not limited solely to those submitting the petition. FMCSA is accepting comments on the petition until April 10, 2023.

FMCSA SANPRM on Safe Integration of Automated Driving System-Equipped Commercial Motor Vehicles

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) published a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) regarding the Safe Integration of Automated Driving System (ADS)-Equipped Commercial Motor Vehicles (CMVs) on February 1, 2023. This SANPRM was released as a supplement to the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published by FMCSA in May 2019.

FMCSA is requesting public comment on factors the Agency should consider in amending the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) to establish a regulatory framework for ADS-equipped CMV operations. The SANPRM states that "FMCSA continues to consider amendments to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation (FMCSRs) to ensure the safe integration of ADS-equipped CMVs into interstate motor carriers' operations and issues this SANPRM to request additional information."

The Agency is requesting comment on questions that fall into the following categories:

  1. Notification by Motor Carriers Operating Level 4 or 5 ADS-equipped CMVs
  2. Oversight for Remote Assistants
  3. Vehicle Inspection and Maintenance

Comments on the SANPRM closed March 20, 2023.

Grants and Funding Opportunities
  • SMART Grant Awardees. On March 21, 2023 the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the first round of recipients under the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program. SMART grants, established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, are intended to provide state, local, and tribal governments with funding to conduct demonstration projects focused on advanced smart city or community technologies and systems to improve transportation efficiency and safety. SMART grants are funded in two stages: Stage 1 Planning and Prototyping, and Stage 2 Implementation. Only projects funded in Stage 1 are eligible for funding in Stage 2. The first round of Stage 1 funding, totaling $94,783,781, was awarded to 59 projects across the country. The next $100 million Notice of Funding Opportunity under Stage 1 is expected to be released in fall 2023. The full list of awardees and a brief description of their projects can be found here. Grants were awarded for projects related to (1) sensors; (2) connected vehicles; (3) UAS; (4) transit innovation; (5) curb management; and (6) smart traffic signals.
  • Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program. On March 14, 2023 the Federal Highway Administration released a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the Charging and Fueling Discretionary Grant Program (CFI). This program, funded under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), will support the deployment of electric vehicle (EV) charging and alternative fueling infrastructure in publicly accessible locations, in both rural and urban settings, and along designated Alternative Fuel Corridors (AFCs). The first round of funding under this NOFO makes available $700 million for two separate grant categories: (1) up to $350 million for the Community Charging and Fueling Program Grants to deploy EV charging infrastructure, hydrogen fueling infrastructure, propane fueling infrastructure, and natural gas fueling infrastructure located on public roads or in other publicly accessible locations, and (2) up to $350 million for the Alternative Fuel Corridor Grants to deploy charging and alternative fueling infrastructure located alongside designated alternative fuel corridors. Applications must be received by May 30, 2023.

Around Washington

University Transportation Centers Mobility Summit

On March 16, 2023 the U.S. Department of Transportation University Transportation Centers (UTCs) held the Fourth Annual National Mobility Summit. Through the UTC Program, the Department of Transportation provides grants to a consortium of colleges and universities to advance innovative transportation research and technology. Each UTC consortium is intended to serve as a "center of transportation excellence" on a specific research topic. The congressionally mandated UTC program has been in place since 1987.

The purpose of the summit, hosted by Carnegie Mellon University's Mobility21, was to ensure that UTC research continues to address twenty-first century mobility needs. The summit brought together representatives from government, industry, and community organizations to discuss challenges they face in improving the mobility of people and goods. The summit featured four panels on (1) UTCs and Transformational Research; (2) Workforce Developments; (3) Equity; and (4) Environment and Climate Change, as well as mobility research by faculty and students.

State Activity

In this session, states have continued to evaluate legislation that would establish frameworks for autonomous vehicle (AV) operations. Most recently, Mississippi enacted a law (HB 1003) that would expressly permit AV operations in the state as long as an AV meets certain requirements. The Kentucky legislature also passed a similar bill (HB 135)—as of April 3, 2023, this bill is under consideration by the governor. The Montana legislature likewise is considering a bill (HB 339) that would expressly enable AV operations in the state through a rulemaking. Both the Washington State and South Dakota legislatures also considered bills that would expressly enable AV deployment (SB 5594 and HB 1120, respectively); however, neither bill was enacted this session. In addition, bills that would require a human driver to be present in an AV were introduced in numerous states this session. Specifically, bills were introduced in California, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Texas. Some of these states have existing laws regulating AVs, while other states are currently silent with respect to AV operations.