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December 9th

Opinion: Congress and DOT must take additional measures beyond self-driving vehicle guidance

  • Elected Body
  • Agency
  • Robotics/AI

The Hill (David Strickland) – Fully self-driving vehicles hold the potential to dramatically reduce the more than 35,000 deaths that occur each year on U.S. roads. Over 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error, due to issues like speeding, drunk or impaired driving, fatigue and distracted driving. Fully self-driving vehicles have the potential to improve public safety and save lives by directly addressing the elements of driver error, while also liberating people from the driving task to use commuting time as they choose.

In September the Department of Transportation released its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (FAVP), providing guidance for the self-driving industry on the safe development, testing and deployment of fully self-driving vehicles. In order for self-driving vehicles to reach their full potential, it’s important that NHTSA, the Department of Transportation and Congress continue to engage and work with key stakeholders, like the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, on refining the FAVP and addressing other important issues that are paramount to maintaining U.S. leadership in this space.

Self-driving vehicle hardware needs a single national framework to avoid an inconsistent patchwork of state laws and regulations. This could otherwise severely inhibit innovators’ ability to test and deploy new technologies nationwide that have the great potential to improve safety and mobility.

States and local municipalities play an important role in road safety, such as licensing and registration. Yet some of them are already considering their own legislative proposals that would codify voluntary federal guidelines as mandatory state regulations. The complex and evolving nature of self-driving technology requires not only a flexible approach by policymakers at all levels of government but also one that provides consistency across the country. NHTSA should use the federal guidance as an opportunity to affirmatively discourage state and local policymakers from pursuing their own rules.

The FAVP represents an important first step in the continued development and advancement of autonomous vehicles. In the near term, there are at least two additional policy measures that the federal government should consider to facilitate the safe and uniform deployment of self-driving vehicles.

First, many current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) -- such as the requirement that brakes be activated by foot control -- assume a human is at the wheel. However, by definition fully self-driving vehicles will not have a human driver. Therefore, the agency should consider amending several existing FMVSS standards that require a human operator and would unintentionally delay fully self-driving vehicles from reaching their safety potential. By amending key design standards for steering wheels and brake pedals, among others, NHTSA could help clear the path toward deployment of fully self-driving vehicles.

Second, only a certain number of self-driving vehicles are permitted to be deployed each year under NHTSA’s current exemption authority. Manufacturers and technology companies are thus hampered in their efforts to bring this potentially lifesaving technology to market. This is yet another example of outmoded laws that are unintentionally holding back self-driving vehicles. Congress should act quickly to expand NHTSA’s exemption authority to responsibly permit greater deployment of self-driving vehicles. 

The safety potential offered by fully self-driving vehicles cannot be overstated. Every week, motor vehicle crashes result in the loss of more than 600 people, and early data from 2016 indicates this number is on the rise. Fully self-driving vehicles can contribute to safer roads for drivers, passengers, bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as open up opportunities for increased mobility for the elderly and disabled, reduced congestion, and improved travel productivity.

The FAVP is a thoughtful first step toward bringing this vision of self-driving vehicles to American roads. NHTSA, Congress and other policymakers should take action on policy solutions to facilitate self-driving vehicle deployment and usher in a new era of safety and mobility. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets stands ready to be a collaborative partner in this important undertaking.