Automotive Regulation, Explained

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently provided “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” (ANPRM) for an 18-page “proposed rule” titled, “Framework for Automated Driving System Safety.”

The ANPRM process, like many US government procedures, allows for public comments. In this case, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Robert L. Sumwalt, III, posted a comment in the form of a 15-page letter, obliquely critical of NHTSA’s current approach to autonomous driving regulation (NTSB thinks NHTSA should regulate autonomous driving more). The Tesla Full Self-Driving beta looms large here.

I thought about writing a post on the merits of this particular exchange, and the proposals involved. I may still write about that. But I realized there was going to be a long wind-up about what these entities are and how they relate to each other.

I’m just going to let that wind-up eat the rest of this post. If what you really want right now is analysis of the NHTSA -NTSB spat, this isn’t going to be that, but here are some takes.

United States

The US has multiple automotive regulatory bodies, both at the federal level and the state level. The description I’ve heard is that, broadly speaking, the federal government regulates vehicles and the state governments regulate drivers. Of course, this distinction becomes less clear when the autonomous vehicle is also the driver.


Sticking with traditional, human-driven vehicles, the federal government regulates automobiles through (natch) the US Department of Transportation, newly and currently led by Secretary Mayor Pete. Matt Yglesias writes that most of the authority at DoT does not really accrue to the Secretary, but rather to bureaucracies that are nominally within DoT but in practice are largely autonomous.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The specific bureaucracy in charge of regulating automobiles is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “a multifaceted organization with a budget of $911 million and 626 full-time employees located throughout the country.”

The President appoints the Administrator of NHTSA, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. This is part of what makes NHTSA (and many other agencies) semi-autonomous from their nominal umbrella Department. Secretary Buttigieg probably didn’t have much say in appointing the Administrator of NHTSA, nor is it likely that Secretary Buttigieg could fire the NHTSA Administrator (perhaps he could lobby the White House, though). In fact, currently, there does not appear to be a Senate-confirmed NHTSA Administrator (a common state of affairs for many federal bureaucracies). Jack Danielson is listed variously as the Acting Deputy Administrator, or the Executive Director.

Beyond staffing politics, NHTSA regulates several different aspects of automotive performance, especially safety and fuel economy. NHTSA regulates safety largely through Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, a rulebook specifying requirements that vehicles sold in the US must meet. I heard that FMVSS compliance is largely conducted on the honor system, rather than through rigorous inspection and certification of every new vehicle model brought to market.

NHTSA also runs the US New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). This is the program you might have seen in car commercials, where a vehicle containing crash test dummies hurtles into a wall at 35mph. NCAP assigns front- and side-impact safety ratings to vehicles, based on a five-star scale.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) enforcement is another important NHTSA responsibility. Basically, automotive manufacturers are penalized for producing too many fuel-inefficient vehicles (largely trucks and SUVs). Consumers don’t have to directly pay penalties for purchasing fuel-inefficient vehicles, but presumably those fees are passed on, indirectly, by the manufacturers.

Other important NHTSA responsibilities include the collection of traffic data, and also purchasing a lot of advertisements encouraging people to drive safely and wear seatbelts. Indeed, advertising spend might actually be the majority of NHTSA’s budget.

More US Department of Transportation Administrations

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is to some extent the trucking analog to NHTSA. Its focus tends to be less on vehicles and more on policies applied to trucking companies to ensure that drivers are healthy and alert.

The Federal Highway Administration primarily funds the construction of highways, particularly US Interstate Highways, and is not especially involved with the vehicles that travel on them.

Similarly, the Federal Transit Administration exists principally to fund regional and local mass-transit systems.

National Transportation Safety Board

The National Transportation Safety Board sits outside of the Department of Transportation, as a wholly independent agency of the federal governments. Its primary role is investigative, and historically its domain has been aviation. NTSB came into existence due to concerns that it was a conflict of interest for the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate airplane crashes, since to an extent the FAA was investigating itself. The current chairman of the NTSB, Robert Sumwalt, III, comes from the aviation world.

Nonetheless, the NTSB has authority to investigate most modes of transportation, including all highway collisions.

Significantly, the NTSB has no regulatory authority nor ability to enforce policies. Based on its investigatory work, the NTSB may recommend safety regulations to agencies such as NHTSA, but those agencies can chose to accept, reject, or ignore NTSB recommendations.


Government in the United States takes the form of a federal republic, in which there is a kind of dual sovereignty shared by the national (“federal”) government and the state governments. All fifty states have some version of a state-level department of transportation, which also has regulatory authority over automotive vehicles.

Departments of Motor Vehicles

Within any given state Department of Transportation, there is typically a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Different states have slightly different names – Arizona has a Motor Vehicle Division, Indiana has a Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and Washington has a Department of Licensing.

The primary responsibilities of the state-level DMVs are to license drivers and register vehicles. Driver’s licenses are typically granted through the completion of educational curricula and the passage of exams, which can be both written and practical. Vehicle registration largely amounts to issuing license plates, collecting taxes, and maintaining a database of which person owns which license plate.

DMVs have been the primary regulators of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the US for several reasons:

  • Historically, DMVs have taken responsibility for certifying and licensing human drivers. In a sense, computers are just an extension of this responsibility.
  • In many cases, the underlying vehicle has already been approved by NHTSA as a human-driven vehicle. Changes to make the underlying vehicle autonomous typically relate to the autonomous driving system, not the vehicle platform.
  • AV testing is limited to a small minority of states, and there is relatively little interstate AV travel (yet). This makes it feasible to let those states handle regulation within their borders.
  • Both the Obama and Trump administrations largely took a “wait and see” approach to autonomous driving.

Other State Agencies

Particularly in California, which is both large and relatively heavily-regulated, other state agencies become involved in automotive regulation.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) sets pollution standards for vehicles and vehicle fuel, above and beyond CAFE requirements. Because California is such a large portion of the overall US economy, automotive manufacturers will often apply CARB regulations nationwide, because that might be easier than having a separate California-only version of a vehicle.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) regulates taxis and ridesharing generally, including probably robotaxis. Since no commercial robotaxi service has yet launched in California, their authority in this area is unclear.


In the US, police tend to be local government employees, although there is typically also a state-level police force charged with (among other responsibilities) enforcing driving laws on highways. Police are not, strictly speaking, regulators, but in practice they have a lot of discretion about whether and how to enforce traffic laws.

Many (most?) Americans are most likely to interact with police as a result of minor moving violations or other routine traffic stops. How this will change for vehicles without human drivers remains to be seen.


European automotive regulation happens primarily at the national level, although voluntary certification exists at the continent-wide level.


The European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) is similar to NHTSA’s NCAP. Both of these programs, along with similar programs in other regions, are part of the Global New Car Assessment Program (Global NCAP). Global NCAP is an attempt to synchronize vehicle safety assessment worldwide.

Unlike in the US, Euro NCAP is voluntary. Since individual countries certify vehicles within their own borders, Euro NCAP cannot and does not compel assessment. Nonetheless, many (most?) reputable vehicle manufacturers participate.

Euro NCAP is considered the most rigorous of all the different regional NCAPs, both because of Europe’s relative wealth and its safety mindset. NCAPs in less wealthy regions of the world tend toward less rigorous safety standards, in part due to what consumers in different parts of the world can afford to purchase.


Technischer Überwachungsverein (TUV) is a type of German organization that certifies vehicles and other machinery. There are three TUVs in Germany, each corresponding to a different geographic region. The name translates to “Technical Inspection Association.” These are non-governmental organizations.

As an American I have a hard time wrapping my head around what exactly TUVs do. My best model is that these are high-powered Consumer Reports-type organizations, but oriented more toward larger engineering projects and products.

TUV is an important safety evaluator in Europe, especially, for automotive components. US regulations and assessments tend to focus on holistically on the performance of the entire vehicle. TUV frequently drills down to evaluate specific parts from suppliers.

Motional recently worked with TUV SUD to determine their readiness for driverless testing.

China, India, And The World

As evidenced by my thin treatment of European automotive regulation, my knowledge is really limited outside the US. When it comes to China, India, and other regions, all I can really say is that there are lots of regional NCAPs.

I’m under-informed in this domain and need to educate myself. Send links if you have them.

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