The Fuse

What Should Congress Do About Autonomous Vehicles?

by Matt Piotrowski | February 15, 2017

A House panel on Tuesday brought together experts from the auto-sector and the Rand Corporation to discuss a legislative pathway to enable the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs) on U.S. roads. This hearing–the first of the 115th Congress to focus on the topic–picks up on a flurry of congressional interest in AVs following the release last year of NHTSA’s guidelines (link) that began the process for federal oversight and government-industry communication in the fast-developing world of self-driving vehicles.

A “patchwork” of state regulations threatens to hinder the deployment of AVs, potentially delaying their benefits to consumers and even impeding some of the critical testing necessary to perfect this technology.

SAFE provided a Statement for the Record, which can be read here.

Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Bob Latta (R-OH), in addition to Vice-Chair manGregg Harper (R-MS), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and many others spoke passionately about the potential benefits that AVs herald–ranging from increased roadway safety to enhanced mobility for the disabled–and panelists spoke in concert on the importance of federal leadership on this timely issue.  A “patchwork” of state regulations threatens to hinder the deployment of AVs, potentially delaying their benefits to consumers and even impeding some of the critical testing necessary to perfect this technology.

Experts emphasize the need for federal leadership 

Members of this subcommittee questioned the panelists on the appropriate role of Congress in facilitating the development and deployment of AVs, with Rep. Dingell specifically highlighting the importance of creating a path that would allow American leadership in the global race toward autonomy. In response, Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute, noted that the federal government should stress that it is not in the interest of states to institute their own AV rules. Beyond fears of a “patchwork,” actions by states should be considered in light of their potential for unintended consequences. This includes the inability of vehicles to cross municipal lines–particularly problematic for ride-sharing services, as Joseph Okpaku, VP of Government Relations for Lyft explained–and a skewing of testing itself. For instance, a California requirement that developers provide data to the state on “disengagements”–times that the technology fails and a human driver must intercede–could lead AV developers to disproportionately test in perfect conditions, rather than in complicated terrain, inclement weather or in challenging situations.

Vice Chairman Harper focused intensely on the potential social and mobility benefits of autonomous vehicles for the disability community, and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) built on this theme to identify other potential communities of interest including the elderly and disabled veterans. A SAFE analysis demonstrates that not only do AVs hold tremendous quality of life and mobility benefits for the disabled, but that AV technology would allow two million disabled Americans to join the workforce and would save $19 billion annually in healthcare costs due to missed appointments.

Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) led the subommittee in pushing the importance of vehicle safety and testing, with Schakowsky noting that leaving to industry a “just trust us” approach would be insufficient.

Panelists adamant that more testing needs to occur 

Panelists were adamant that more testing needs to occur to get AVs on the road quickly, while ensuring that they are safer than human drivers. With this in mind, panelists recommended that government avoid overly-onerous regulations that could stifle testing activity, particularly on-road testing. “It is imperative that manufacturers have the ability to test these vehicles in greater numbers to gather the safety data that will be critical to inform large-scale deployment of life-saving self-driving vehicles,” Mike Abelson, the VP of Global Strategy for GM, told the subcommittee.

“It is imperative that manufacturers have the ability to test these vehicles in greater numbers to gather the safety data that will be critical to inform large-scale deployment of life-saving self-driving vehicles.”

They also stressed the criticality of testing in different circumstances and in rigorous environments.

Gill Pratt of Toyota acknowledged an additional hurdle facing AVs that should motivate aggressive testing: While society is generally accepting of human mistakes, which are the cause of more than 90% of vehicle accidents, it is likely to be intolerant of technological error. This could create a dynamic where even a dramatic drop in accidents and fatalities due to the success of AV technology is considered insufficient.

Dr. Nidhi Kalra of the RAND Corporation broached the same issue from another angle, noting that there is currently no standard for how safe an autonomous vehicle should be before allowing deployment. That question is one that SAFE sought to answer through its Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety, which was provided to the Committee in its written statement (link to report). Dr. Kalra noted that it would be logical to allow AVs on the road once they are judged safer than the average human driver, as waiting for perfection risks missing opportunities to save lives in the near-term.

Toyota’s Gill Pratt and Dr. Kalra also expressed support for data-sharing within the industry to expedite safety improvements across the AV fleet, acknowledging that protections would need to be put in place to allow manufacturers to safely share proprietary information. Dr. Kalra likened the benefits – and feasibility – of technology companies and OEMs sharing data to steps the airline industry took to effectively share information to evaluate risk and safety across carriers. SAFE’s Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety made similar recommendations in its January report.

AVs are today predominantly electric and hybrid

While this hearing focused primarily on the societal benefits that AVs hold and the safety standards, requirements and implications of testing, the benefit–or detriments–of AVs to fuel economy also arose. Congressman David McKinley (R-W.Va) questioned the value of self-driving vehicles to fuel economy standards, leading GM to highlight that its Bolt AVs are built on an electric platform. Lyft added that not only are EVs an important element to the debate, but that autonomous ride-sharing will further these objectives by improving vehicle utilization and efficiency.

Lyft added that not only are EVs an important element to the debate, but that autonomous ride-sharing will further these objectives by improving vehicle utilization and efficiency.

SAFE’s submission (link) to the Committee highlighted new research demonstrating that 58% of autonomous light-duty vehicles are currently built on an electric powertrain, with a further 21% operating on a hybrid powertrain. By comparison, in the larger light-duty vehicle market, only 14% of domestically available 2016 models were either electric or hybrid, demonstrating an important trend that SAFE believes will continue.

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The innovation in the AV sector is likely to accelerate consumer and fleet adoption of electric vehicles without government mandates or market interference. This matters because with more than 90 percent of the transportation sector reliant on petroleum, the country is vulnerable to global oil market volatility and OPEC actions. With increased electrification through autonomy, SAFE believes that oil’s stranglehold can be broken.

 

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