Connected Vehicles and Drones Get Boost From New Federal Research Programs

By Tom DeCesar, Ed Fishman, Cliff Rothenstein and Marty Stern

Through the implementation of new pilot research programs, the U.S. Department of Transportation has placed itself in the middle of two of the transportation industry’s most significant innovations: connected vehicles and commercial drones.

Connected vehicles, which are systems to wirelessly connect vehicles to infrastructure and other vehicles, will be primarily regulated through the following DOT agencies: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and Federal Highway Administration.  Commercial drones, referred to as “unmanned aircraft systems” by DOT, are aircraft remotely piloted by private entities and will be regulated through the Federal Aviation Administration, which is also a part of DOT.

After running an 18-month connected vehicle safety pilot program from 2012-2014, DOT is planning to begin a number of new connected vehicle pilot programs in the coming years.  The goal of these new pilot programs will be to explore other potential uses of connected vehicle technology.  The new connected vehicle pilot programs will utilize a number of different connectivity methods, including commercial wireless technologies.  The new programs may also test a number of potential applications, such as weather advisories, emissions monitoring and reduction, freight operations, congestion management, vehicle platooning and smart parking.

Commercial drones are another hot button issue being addressed by the FAA through a pilot research program.  The FAA selected drone pilot program sites in December 2013, and the first test site, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, became operational in late April 2014.  A test site run by the University of Alaska followed close behind.  Other drone pilot research sites will be run by the State of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in New York, Texas A&M, and Virginia Tech.

Safety-related applications for connected vehicles (e.g., vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications) and drones (e.g., search and rescue/law enforcement aids) will likely be among the first uses of these innovations.  In fact, in the public sector, several hundred entities are already licensed to operate drones, typically for law enforcement and disaster relief issues.  In addition, the potential commercial applications will likely have a significant effect on a large number of industries.  For instance, in addition to the automotive industry, connected vehicle technology will involve the insurance, wireless telecommunications, freight, and advertising industries.  Drones may be used in agriculture, land surveying, infrastructure monitoring, telecommunications, and shipping.

The advent of connected vehicles and drones will be met with significant regulatory and legal issues.    Currently, commercial drones are not permitted without FAA approval, although FAA’s authority to regulate drones under its existing regulations is currently being challenged before the National Transportation Safety Board.  The FAA plans to issue a proposed rulemaking relating to small commercial drones by the end of 2014.  Additionally, connected vehicle systems may be mandated, curtailed, or otherwise regulated by DOT in the future.  The first proposed regulations on vehicle-to-vehicle communications are expected from DOT before 2017, although DOT has not set out a timeline.  Some of the issues that will have to be dealt with in the connected car and drone regulations include: standardization of technology and communications; credentialing/security; data usage and ownership; degree of oversight; and necessary training.

Connected car and drone regulations will also need to address privacy issues.  The FAA already touched upon privacy related to its drone pilot programs when it required all drone pilot site operators to have a publicly available privacy plan guided by the Fair Information Practice Principles, comply with all applicable privacy laws, and only provide the FAA with the data it requests.  Notably, the FAA also agreed with commenters that its mission does not include regulating privacy but found that including these privacy requirements helped the FAA accomplish its goal to further drone integration in the national airspace system.  Since the FAA’s drone rulemaking will likely take place before DOT makes significant progress in its connected car rulemakings, the FAA’s approach to privacy may foreshadow DOT’s expected approach for connected car systems.  

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