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Driverless Cars Are Coming, the Federal Government Must Act

The Hill

Driverless cars are coming to your street, the only question is “when?”

This year we’ve seen headline after headline about autonomous vehicles; the ability to work without a driver ranges from very limited circumstances to anytime and anywhere.  Not only have new technology companies been investing heavily in these vehicles, but also legacy automakers who are spurred by the thought that Tesla, Google, and Uber could one day replace GM, Ford, and Chrysler.  Much of the development, manufacturing, and testing of this technology is occurring in the United States, but China and others are making great strides.  If the U.S. fails to implement the right policies we will lose our lead, meaning that we fall behind in saving lives and likely lose millions of jobs that will result from the development and manufacture of these new vehicles.  We must get this right.

The promise of autonomous vehicles is great.  Traffic accidents killed over 35,000 people in the U.S. last year, and since 19 out of 20 crashes are caused by human error, driverless cars hold amazing promise for drastically reducing fatalities.  Congestion can also be significantly reduced by automated and connected cars because they increase the efficiency of traffic flows.  In addition, greater car sharing spurred by autonomous vehicles could reduce car congestion even further.  Autonomous cars will also provide mobility to people who are unable to drive. 

Autonomous cars are already emerging on our roadways.  In March, Google announced that their driverless cars had driven over 1.5 million miles on public roads, and autonomous cars were recently placed on roads in Pittsburgh by Uber, albeit with a driver and an engineer in every vehicle.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t still challenges to overcome.  We’ve seen the deadly crash of a Tesla car using “autopilot” and demonstrations of computer hackers taking control of cars.  The technology needs more research, development, and testing.

One problem we face in policymaking is the danger of having technology develop faster than the legal and regulatory system can react, potentially risking safety as well as efficient development and testing.  I have been working in Congress to advance sound policies to develop driverless vehicle technologies, adding funding for a dedicated research center and a technology policy working group on this issue to the highway bill that became law last year.  Additionally, policy fights between federal, state, or local governments and technology companies could result in barriers that impede innovation.  That’s why I was happy to see the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) release their guidance for autonomous vehicles last week.

Over the past two years, I’ve held numerous roundtables on autonomous and connected vehicles, and have been talking to innovators, academics, policymakers, and others about what the federal government should be doing to promote research, development, and the safe deployment of these technologies.  What I have heard is that we need to provide industry with some certainty regarding federal regulations, while maintaining flexibility for innovation.  In addition, experts have expressed the need for state and local laws to facilitate the testing and deployment of these vehicles.

The DOT guidelines begin to provide what’s been asked for.  Model state standards are included as well as a 15-point Safety Assessment to set expectations for manufacturers developing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies.  The assessment guidelines include topics such as data collection, privacy, and cybersecurity.

While we still need more information on how the DOT will implement the guidelines, they seem to have so far struck the right balance to maintain safety while allowing freedom to innovate. 

One area that will need to be examined further is exemption petitions for existing regulations.  The DOT says in the guidance they will turn around exemption petitions in six months. While this would represent a significant reduction in current petition wait times, it may still be a long time for innovators to wait in a constantly changing market.  While the flexibility from existing regulations may allow for innovations in vehicle design, if these take too long to approve, it could be a hurdle for American companies trying to keep up with global competition. Another area that must be finessed is the government’s collection of data from technology developers to assess these exemptions, while also protecting industrial proprietary information.

As the guidance states, new authorities from Congress will likely be needed to aid the safe deployment of new technologies.  I look forward to working with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and with my congressional colleagues to facilitate America’s leadership in the deployment of autonomous vehicles and other mobility enhancements.  The next step will be the release of a rule pending at the Office of Management and Budget on a vehicle-to-vehicle communications standard.  Connecting vehicles to one another, others using the road, and infrastructure will facilitate the safest and most efficient autonomous movement.  It is critical that we get this issue worked out.

The bottom line is that driverless cars are coming; it is important for the federal government to act so that America leads the way.