A gridlocked Congress that can agree on almost nothing has found common cause on the issue of self-driving cars.
On October 4 the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill that would get self-driving cars to market faster by loosening regulatory controls. The bill is similar to one the House of Representatives passed in September, allowing hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles per year on public roads. Both bills give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sole authority to regulate autonomous vehicle design and performance.
Safety groups and the driving public remain skeptical about whether driverless vehicles are ready for wide deployment.
Proponents say the sweeping legislation is needed to address a patchwork of state and federal laws. They hail driverless technology as a transportation panacea that will save lives, create jobs, cut down on gridlock and pollution, and reshape communities.
But safety groups and the public remain skeptical about whether driverless vehicles are ready for wide deployment. And lurking in the background are powerful corporate interests with a huge stake in rapid adoption of the technology—regardless of the risks.
House and Senate Bills Agree on Major Points
While the legislation is a work in progress—the Senate bill still requires a full vote, and then the House and Senate versions would have to be reconciled before being sent to President Trump—both bills aim to put self-driving cars on the road faster through several major changes to existing laws.
NHTSA at the Wheel
The House and Senate bills grant the NHTSA authority on autonomous vehicle design and performance standards. States retain authority over licensing, insurance, and public safety laws. States can allow or prohibit self-driving cars on their roads, but they must defer to the NHTSA on vehicle regulations.
This arrangement is similar to how state and federal governments regulate traditional cars. Local officials, however, have expressed concerns over their ability to protect residents from the largely unproven technology. They claim their authority is meaningless if no one is technically driving a car.
Reduced Barriers to Deployment
Under the new legislation, automakers could obtain more exemptions from federal motor safety standards that apply to all new vehicles.
Current standards reflect human drivers and require features like steering wheels and brake pedals, which aren’t relevant for driverless cars. As of now the NHTSA permits an annual exemption to cover 2,500 vehicles per manufacturer. That number would increase under the House bill, allowing up to 25,000 autonomous vehicles per manufacturer in year one; 50,000 in year two; and 100,000 in years three and four. The Senate bill tops out at 80,000 exemptions after three years and lifts the cap completely after four.
Exempted vehicles must be shown to be at least as safe as human-driven cars. A manufacturer granted an exemption is required to provide information about all crashes involving exempted vehicles. The House bill gives the NHTSA two years to issue a final rule regarding how safety is being addressed by each manufacturer.
Cybersecurity and Privacy
Automated driving systems present serious cybersecurity risks, including the disclosure of passenger data and the ability of hackers to remotely control a vehicle. Thankfully the House and Senate bills recognize these risks and call for manufacturers to develop cybersecurity and privacy plans.
Commercial Vehicles Exempted, but Roll On
Vehicles over 10,000 pounds were not included in either bill, reflecting labor union concerns about commercial driver job losses.
Many in the industry, however, see a silver lining. Chris Spear, president of the American Trucking Associations, likened truck drivers to pilots last year in a statement to Congress, noting that drivers will still be needed to do the pickups and deliveries in cities, much the way that pilots control taxiing, takeoff, and landing, but revert to autopilot at cruising altitudes.
Autonomous heavy trucks carrying human back-up drivers could be making regular deliveries in five or ten years.
Autonomous trucking could cut down on the primary contributors to truck accidents, factors such as fatigue, boredom, and distractions. There are also significant economic incentives for trucking companies. Unlike human drivers, self-driving trucks can be on the move all day long, helping to complete routes sooner. And tech-optimized speeds and acceleration could improve fuel efficiency.
Daimler, Otto (Uber), and other companies are developing and testing autonomous trucking technology. Autonomous heavy trucks carrying human back-up drivers in the cab could be making regular deliveries in five or ten years.
An Otto-made autonomous truck last year completed a 132-mile beer run in Colorado.
Some Remain Leery of Autonomous Vehicles, New Regulations
Those pushing autonomous vehicles assure the public that a transportation revolution is right around the corner, and that delaying legislation to free up the technology is akin to a utopia roadblock.
The most common argument in favor of self-driving cars is their ability to dramatically reduce traffic fatalities. U.S. road deaths surpassed 40,000 in 2016, the highest level in nearly a decade. The previous two years marked the sharpest two-year increase in traffic deaths in 53 years. According to the NHTSA, human error is to blame for 94 percent of crashes.
“More than 90 percent of these tragedies are linked to human error, driver choices, intoxication, and distraction,” said John Thune (R-SD) at a March 2016 public hearing on self-driving cars before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “Automated vehicles have the potential to reduce that number dramatically. Unlike human drivers, automated vehicles don’t get tired, drunk, or distracted.”
Mr. Thune and fellow senator Gary Peters (D-MI) formed the Senate Smart Transportation Caucus, which focuses on transportation technology solutions aimed at improving safety and efficiency. They introduced the Senate version of the autonomous vehicle legislation.
In a statement announcing the bill, Mr. Peters said, “Self-driving vehicles will completely revolutionize the way we get around in the future. Our government can help save lives, improve mobility for all Americans… and create new jobs by making us leaders in this important technology.”
The senators’ talking points are nearly identical to those advanced by self-driving car makers.
He and Mr. Thune have also touted the ability of self-driving cars to reduce traffic congestion, fuel use and emissions, and to meet future infrastructure, environmental, and economic challenges.
The senators’ talking points are nearly identical to those advanced by autonomous vehicle manufacturers like Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo, and Waymo (Google). This is not a coincidence.
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