This week Sen. Collins (R,ME) introduced S 2844, the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) Appropriations Act, 2017. Since the Senate Appropriations Committee has already completed it markup of this bill the Committee Report is also available.
As is usual the bill contains no specific mention of chemical transportation safety or cybersecurity issues (beyond internal cybersecurity requirements) other than funding. The Committee report, however, does provide guidance to DOT and its constituent agencies on such topics. Topics of potential interest to readers of this blog include:
• Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS);
• Autonomous Vehicles;
• Safe Transport of Energy Products (STEP);
• Comprehensive Oil Spill Response Plans
Unmanned Aircraft Systems
While there are a number of mentions of UAS programs in the report, one specific topic that has been covered in this blog was included; UAS registration (pg 30). The Committee commends the FAA for the development of the on-line registration process for UAS. It then goes on to direct the FAA to “to include in its electronic registration system a link for registrants to undergo a suitable and interactive online education and training program.” A report to Congress is included in the requirement.
The Committee mentions autonomous vehicle programs in two different areas of the report; FHWA (pg 45) and NHTSA (pgs 55-6). In the FHWA section of the report the Committee requests a report on the economic effects of autonomous vehicles; specifically focusing on “on motor carriers, ports, transit, and related industries”.
The NHTSA portion of the report notes that the Committee is recommending “$6,600,000 for vehicle electronics and emerging technologies”. A brief note adds that the “Committee directs the agency to also reduce cybersecurity risks associated the vehicle’s electronic and communications systems” with those funds.
Safe Transport of Energy Products
The report notes (pg 60) that FRA funding includes monies intended to “support FRA’s efforts to improve the safe transport of energy products”. Those funds would support “FRA’s efforts to improve the safe transport of energy products. The STEP initiative supports crude oil safety inspectors, crude oil route safety managers, and tank car quality assurance specialists, tank car research, as well as supports increased mileage of a dedicated Automated Track Inspection Program vehicle on routes with energy products traffic”.
Comprehensive Oil Spill Response Plans
While the Committee recognizes that PHMSA did publish an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) on comprehensive oil spill response plans for railroads, the Committee is extremely disappointed in the lack of action since then. In this report the Committee “directs PHMSA to initiate a rulemaking to expand the applicability of comprehensive oil spill response plans to rail carriers no later than June 30, 2016, and to issue a final rule no later than December 18, 2016”.
With the Senate taking up HR 2028 last week (the vehicle for the FY 2017 military construction spending bill), it is obvious that the Senate is not going to wait for the House to start the spending bill process. Where this particular bill fits in the schedule is open to some question, but it is obviously relatively high on the priority of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The House will most likely take up their own bill and then the two bills would go to Conference before a final version is passed and sent to the President. It is still too early to dismiss final action on this bill before the election. If the Senate takes action on the bill in the next couple of weeks we might actually see this bill pass before the summer recess. I’m not holding my breath, but it is possible.
The UAS training program suggestion seems like a no brainer on its face; ensuring that small UAS operators have at least a minimum of safety and regulatory training before they operate their UAS is a motherhood and apple pie proposal. Unfortunately, this is one of those appearance suggestions that is likely to have adverse consequences. While registration is legally required, the way that it has been implemented is actually a voluntary registration program, particularly for non-commercial UAS.
Since there is no effective way of policing the registration requirement, the FAA is relying on voluntary compliance with the registration requirement. And that voluntary compliance is apparently failing miserably. The FAA estimated that there were 1.6 million UAS sold in the United States in 2015, yet the registrations reported by the FAA total less than 10% of that number.
Anything that makes the registration process more difficult or expensive will reduce the number of registrations. The current ‘training’ requirement in the registration process is nothing more than an ‘I have read and understand’ check box that is probably as effective as the similar check boxes found during the ‘registration’ process for many web sites and software programs. To add requirements for anything more complicated than that will ultimately reduce the number of UAS owners that will undergo the registration process.
The autonomous vehicle cybersecurity provisions are just another case of satisfying appearances. While encouraging NHTSA to address cybersecurity issues the Committee only authorizes $6.6 million for all spending on autonomous vehicle technology. The fact that the Committee also cautioned NHTSA not to kill the innovative program with regulation helps to ensure that NHTSA will be doing little in vehicle cybersecurity regulation.