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Comments from Cities on California’s Autonomous Vehicle Regulations

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has published the public comments it received on its proposed updated regulations concerning the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles. Several cities, transit authorities, and other organizations of city officials submitted comments to the DMV expressing their views on the proposed regulations. This article highlights key issues raised by these organizations, which are very different from the concerns voiced by the industry. It does not purport to summarize or include all comments made. Many of the cities and organizations generally voice support for the DMV’s efforts to enact these regulations; this article focuses on suggested changes or concerns.

Notification and Coordination with Local Authorities

NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) believes that automated vehicle technology “remains in development, and recent tests have shown that while the hope is that the digital drivers exceed the average skills of humans one day, that remains far away.” NACTO states that “recent vehicles have run red lights, necessitated emergency stops, and failed to obey basic rules of maneuvering through city streets.” NACTO believes that “marketplace pressures have undermined companies’ willingness to work with, or even communicate results to, the communities where they are operating.” Accordingly, NACTO believes “cities should lead the way” and recommends that “cities should retain the power to deny the application of automated vehicle testing on city streets and designate where and when testing can occur.” NACTO also recommends that cities “retain the authority to regulate and manage streets after deployment is approved, including the ability to price.”

San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA) believes that “cities should be notified in advance regarding the testing and/or deployment of autonomous vehicles” and requests that the DMV maintain a “database of autonomous vehicle contact persons for each local jurisdiction in the state.” SFMTA also states that “beyond being notified, cities should retain the power to deny testing on city streets, and designate where and when testing can occur.”

City Transportation Departments (a group of eight city transportation departments including SF, LA, Oakland and San Jose) notes that “cities should retain the power to deny the application of testing on city streets and designate where and when testing can occur.” They also note that deployment should be separately managed and “cities must retain the authority to access and manage streets including the ability to price.”

City of Dublin California is concerned that the California DMV rules about notification and coordination with local authorities lack specificity so it is not clear what coordination must occur, in what time frame and what recourse local jurisdictions might have. Dublin believes “there needs to be additional steps to this process thus allowing local authorities to ensure the testing vehicle does meet the local traffic laws including speed limits.” Dublin believes that “at a minimum manufacturers must be required to disclose the ODD for the testing vehicles to the local authorities and acquire approval through an Encroachment Permit based on the local traffic operations and local traffic laws.”

Operational Design Domains

NACTO believes that “automated vehicle technology as it exists today poses real threats to the safety of all street users due to its lack of reliable, safe detection and reaction to street scenarios.” NACTO states that “the operational design domain of vehicles should be further defined to differentiate between limited access versus non-limited access streets” and that “all vehicles operating on non-limited access streets must be able to operate and interact safely with pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and other users on non-limited access streets, especially in complex urban environments.” NACTO also believes the “digital driver” should “exceed the skills of the average human driver before commercial deployment is permitted.”

SFMTA recommends that the DMV “working with the industry, develop standard definitions for Operational Design Domains.” In addition to domains such as “roadway type, speed range and environmental conditions,” the SFMTA wants to “ensure that AV’s can operate safely in complex environments like San Francisco, where pedestrians, buses, rail transit, bicyclists and tracks all share the same street space and there are countless complex interactions between them on a daily basis.” SFMTA accordingly recommends an Operational Design Domain that is “urban, multimodal environment” and that the definition of this Operational Design Domain refer to “design details included in the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide and Transit Street Design Guide, while also recognizing that the actual condition and design of city streets comes in infinite varieties.”

San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) suggests “expanding upon the ODD definition by providing specific reference to the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices to aid manufacturers’ understanding of additional domain constraints and the standardized traffic control elements that must be interpreted under the Dynamic Driving Task.”

SFMTA supports the NACTO Policy Statement on Automated Vehicles which has a recommendation “that maximum operating speed in a city street environment should not exceed 25 miles per hour.”

City of Dublin California notes that it is concerned “about the testing vehicles ability to maintain safe operating speed, and a testing vehicle may create safety concerns when it is operating below the speed limit.” Dublin also states that “there needs to be a process that would allow local authorities the ability to know and inform the DMV if the vehicle is found to be operating outside the ODD.”

Commercial Use of AVs

SFMTA believes that “before an AV vehicle can be deployed on public roads for any commercial use, cities (or other regulatory body as appropriate) should issue additional regulations pertaining specifically to the commercial operation of autonomous vehicles.” SFMTA notes that while some vehicle types are excluded under the DMV rules, “there are some commercial uses that do not require such vehicles (e.g., TNCs, taxis, delivery services), but require additional regulations due to their unique operating conditions.” SFMTA “is pleased to note” that Phase III B of the CPUC’s rulemaking proceedings “regarding TNC service includes regulations of AV specific to TNC service” and adds that “this is a good first step but does not cover the full range of commercial transportation services.”

SFMTA also requests that the DMV rules “explicitly permit any local regulations that are not inconsistent with the DMV regulations, as cities may have need to apply or develop additional regulations tailored to specific local jurisdictional needs, including the ability to price access to city streets.” SFMTA also believes “provisions should be added that allow local jurisdictions to formally appeal to the DMV to revoke a manufacturer’s testing and/or deployment permit expeditiously if the local jurisdiction believes that additional steps are needed to ensure the safety of the public.”

SANDAG agrees with the exclusion of certain vehicle types from the current regulations but “urges the DMV to collaborate with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Federal Transit Administration and NHTSA to develop regulations that would allow for the testing of automated commercial and transit vehicles.”

Make The NHTSA Safety Assessment Letter Mandatory

NACTO states that “relying on self-certification by manufacturers to ensure public safety is insufficient” and urges the California DMV to “take an active role in the oversight of safety parameters for vehicle operations in the public right of way.” NACTO believes that “in accordance with the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy, basic performance and safety benchmarks should be met by manufacturers and verified by the DMV,” and that the DMV should “retain control over operators of motor vehicles, whether they be human operators or software based operations.” NACTO states that the DMV should require manufacturers to “submit annual safety assessments with documentation that the ‘digital driver’ complies with all safety criteria set by the California DMV,” which should include “documentation of the manufacturer’s internal processes and protocols to ensure safety measures are continually met as software is modified over time” and “documentation of procedures to ensure compliance between annual reports.” NACTO also suggests that manufacturers should be “required to resubmit vehicle safety assessments upon triggering any pre-specified safety threshold, including any incidents of a vehicle crash, a vehicle breaking traffic laws or exceeding a threshold level of disengagements.”

SFMTA states that it “sees the potential for autonomous vehicles in our city to advance the goals for our transportation system, but only if done right.” SFMTA states “we are currently home to many technology-enabled transportation advances that are not consistently supportive of city policy.” SFMTA believes the proposed California regulations “in part, rely too heavily on the AV manufacturers’ self-certification of safety of technology, and in those cases we suggest strengthening validation requirements and adding safety benchmarks that the technology used must meet.” SFMTA strongly recommends “that the regulations specify performance benchmarks, and require that those benchmarks be achieved and documented in a controlled test environment that is reviewed by a third party, before a manufacturer can test or deploy their autonomous vehicles on public roads.” SFMTA believes “the starting point for this assessment” should be NHTSA’s 15-point safety assessment.

City Transportation Departments makes the same points as the SFMTA noted above, and believes “it is of utmost importance that the California DMV take an active role in the oversight of safety parameters for vehicle operations in the public right of way.”

City of Dublin California believes the NHTSA Safety Assessment Letter process should be mandatory, not voluntary.

SANDAG suggests expanding the requirement of submitting the Safety Assessment Letter to also include NHTSA’s response “as evidence of NHTSA’s approval.”

Data Collection and Sharing

NACTO believes that “detailed data on disengagements and collisions provides information essential to public safety and enables cities to mitigate any street design related safety concerns.” NACTO supports “the establishment of a standardized data report for all AVs nationwide” and also recommends the data collection of specified items “on an open, anonymized, third party intermediary platform” in accordance with NACTO’s Data Sharing Principles.

City of Sacramento urges the California DMV to “include data collection and sharing in any regulations” as data sharing will present “an opportunity to more efficiently manage the investments that cities have made in their roadway networks.” Sacramento notes that data sharing will allow cities to answer critical questions as to whether autonomous vehicles are “contributing to congestion without moving people, goods or services” or “how many collisions were avoided” due to connected autonomous vehicle technologies.

City Transportation Departments urges the California DMV to standardize disengagement reporting “through an open, anonymized, third party intermediary platform, such as the OpenTraffic platform” and notes that “data on travel behavior is essential for planning and designing effective transportation infrastructure.” They agree with NACTO’s Data Sharing Principles and seek specified data points from autonomous vehicles. This information would include “speed, volume, travel time, pick up/drop off locations, vehicle occupancy, non-revenue vehicle miles traveled, vehicle dwell time, number/date/time of unfulfilled rides, declined rides and cancelled rides, vehicle availability by type, and instances of rapid acceleration/deceleration.”

SFMTA “supports the establishment of a standardized autonomous technology data recorder for all AVs” and suggests “extending the required timeframe to 90 seconds prior to a collision to better capture weather and other factors that may not be available 30 seconds prior to the collision.” SFMTA also supports requiring more detailed disengagement reporting, including details such as the specific address of each location of disengagement, not just the type of roadway, and other specified data. SFMTA believes data sharing requirements should be based on NACTO’s City Data Sharing Principles. SFMTA suggests “an annual report is too infrequent” and asks the DMV to establish “a reporting template that can be accessed by local law enforcement, city/county traffic engineers and others on an ongoing basis.”

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) notes that “airport roadways are not ‘public roads’” and that “owners and operators of AVs are prohibited from operating at any public airport in California under the proposed regulations as currently drafted.” To permit enforcement of AV regulations prohibiting AVs from operating on airport roadways, SFO requests the DMV “post all AV license plate numbers and states of issuance on the AV page of its website” which will allow SFO “to periodically compare the posted license plate numbers against license plates captured by SFO’s automated license plate recognition technology.”

Law Enforcement Interaction Plans

SFMTA “wants to ensure that, in the event of a collision involving an autonomous vehicle, law enforcement is not required to issue a warrant to gain access to the autonomous technology data and/or video recorder.” SFMTA notes that “law enforcement is able to immediately interview the driver” today and in the absence of a driver “the data and/or video recorders could be the only source of information about the circumstances of the collision.” Therefore SFMTA recommends incorporating the following into the DMV rules: (1) “the autonomous technology data and/or video recordings must be made immediately available to local law enforcement in the event of a collision”; (2) “the remote operator must be immediately available to engage in post collision conversations with local law enforcement”; (3) “a live person must be available 24 hours a day/seven days per week to provide technical assistance to law enforcement if needed for collision or traffic investigations”; and (4) “the owner/manufacturer shall release the local jurisdiction from any liability in the event that the local jurisdiction needs to move the vehicle to clear the roadway.” SFMTA also suggests the DMV should “develop a standard format for the Local Law Enforcement Engagement Plan” and require that manufacturers update the plans quarterly or at least annually.



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Michele Kyrouz

Michele Kyrouz

writer | lawyer | host of Smarter Cars podcast | author of The New Mobility Handbook — Rethinking How We Get Around Cities