Since the first Federal Safety Standards for cars became effective on January 1, 1968, motor vehicle regulations have been designed with drivers as an assumed constant. However, much has changed in the intervening 53 years, and the United States’ regulatory framework has not been able to keep pace with the rapid technological development of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

While there has been recent bipartisan interest in introducing legislation regarding self-driving cars, most recently as part of the Endless Frontier Act, Congress has not passed AV legislation thus far. Similarly, federal regulators have issued guidance—but no binding regulations—on AV operations. States have filled this vacuum, creating a patchwork of regulations that could hinder deployment of this technology at scale. As a result, the AV industry faces an uneven and uncertain regulatory environment and lacks a clear path to large-scale deployment.

Such deployment is necessary for AVs to deliver on their potential. First, AV adoption could reduce roadway fatalities, cut emissions, and mitigate congestion. Second, more AVs on the road result in more data that can inform safer, more efficient mobility systems. Third, the public would have more opportunities to interact with AVs, which would hasten the consumer acceptance of the technology that is vital to reaping its benefits.

The United States has an opportunity to play a leading role in autonomous vehicle (AV) legislation and can capitalise on its early-mover advantage to develop comprehensive standards with trading partners. This paper outlines the current regulatory barriers to AV deployment at scale and offers recommendations for a path forward.

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