A House panel on Tuesday brought together experts on autonomous vehicles (AVs) to shed light on the different levels of vehicle automation, and to continue the Subcommittee’s discussion of potential legislative action on the topic. Conversation ranged from the integration of semi-autonomous features into today’s vehicles, to data sharing and standardization, consumer awareness, testing on public roads, and the long-term vision of bringing full automation onto U.S. roadways. This marks the Subcommittee’s second AV hearing in two months, a clear illustration of Congress’s–and industry’s–focus on the transformative potential of autonomous vehicles.
Chairman of the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection, Bob Latta (R-OH), together with Vice-Chairman Gregg Harper (R-MS), Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), and many others spoke of the significant benefits that both autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies hold for consumer safety. Many also highlighted the potential challenges of the technology, and the resulting importance of better educating the public on the full scope of AV capabilities and limitations.
Public education is critical to gaining consumer confidence in the technology, which is a vital element to ultimate consumer adoption. Witnesses stressed this point, while also emphasizing the need for a single national regulatory framework, as well as a common taxonomy to guide vehicle automation.
Both lawmakers and witnesses noted that the transition period to full autonomy holds significant challenges, including consumer understanding, utilization, and industry integration of semi-autonomous features into the vehicle fleet. “The automotive industry continues to develop and bring to market innovative safety technologies that have made a significant difference in reducing fatality and injury rates,” Kay Stepper, Vice President for Automated Driving at Robert Bosch, told the Subcommittee. “Adoption rates, however, remain low and additional actions must be taken to encourage the installation of these technologies.”
Witnesses praised NHTSA’s guidelines released last year, but argued that more work has to be done in order to streamline and clarify the process for AV development, testing, and deployment.
Bill Gouse, Director of Federal Program Development at SAE, a leading scientific association providing guidance on vehicle safety noted that establishing common definitions for the six levels of automation (0-5) would provide consistency and stability for legislators, media, regulators, and the public, helping to educate all on AV capabilities.
As in previous hearings, the Subcommittee focused on the potential for “L3” technology, an SAE level of “highly autonomous vehicles” where the vehicle is able to perform the full suite of driving functions in certain circumstances, but where the driver may be required to intervene on occasion.
Witnesses praised NHTSA’s guidelines released last year, but argued that more work has to be done in order to streamline and clarify the process for AV development, testing, and deployment. Jeff Klei of Tier I supplier Continental AG, noted that NHTSA applications to approve new software can impede the development and testing of AVs.
Moreover, he said, “the industry currently faces considerable uncertainty on state and federal requirements that would require clarification from the federal government’s exclusive authority to regulate all motor vehicles. The safe commercial deployment of potential life-saving technology depends on the ability to extensively test on public roads under all conditions.”
Vice Chair Gregg Harper (R-MS) focused on the enormous potential benefits that self-driving vehicles hold for the disabled community, an area that SAFE has also focused on.
Uber’s accident provides opportunity to renew efforts on AV safety
Although Friday’s accident in Arizona involving an Uber autonomous vehicle was not discussed at the hearing, the incident raises questions about the rollout of self-driving cars and the need to do so in a cautious manner. While early reports indicate that the accident was likely not the fault of the AV, perception is important, and public acceptance of AVs will be critical to their ultimate adoption.
It appears that the accident caused no serious injuries to either occupant’s vehicle, nor anyone else on the roadway.
While the incident is unfortunate, there is reason to believe it can provide constructive lessons for the rollout of autonomy moving forward. Uber has acted responsibly by suspending its testing program on public roads in Arizona, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco until it can process the information from the crash and make a determination as to cause.
While the Uber incident is unfortunate, there is reason to believe it can provide constructive lessons for the rollout of autonomy moving forward.
Uber can now fully analyze the vehicle data to see what led to the collision and publicly share information about the cause of thie accident. This can help the industry and drivers avoid circumstances like the ones that led to the crash in the future. In the cases of AVs being involved in collisions, most of the accidents occurred as a result of the action of human drivers in the other cars.
After the latest incident with the Uber vehicle, the Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety, part of SAFE, stressed the importance of companies following safety benchmarks, in order to help industry move forward in this space as a whole and contribute to a smooth and safe transition to widespread deployment of AVs. The Commission, which released its recommendations in January, has argued that AVs should only be tested on public roads once developers believe that vehicles are safer than the average human driver and that including a trained backup driver or other safety mechanisms will allow companies to reach this standard.
“Every accident involving an AV represents a setback in building public confidence in this transformative technology, so it is therefore important that developers take immediate and responsible steps following a testing incident to preserve that confidence.”
“Every accident involving an AV represents a setback in building public confidence in this transformative technology, so it is therefore important that developers take immediate and responsible steps following a testing incident to preserve that confidence,” said Bob Lange of the Commission.
The Commission also advises companies that test AVs to collaborate by sharing data, a move that would improve learning and safety through this shared information. Witnesses at the hearing on Tuesday concurred that some form of model-sharing ought to be formed in order to better understand collisions and provide a greater level of comfort for industry and government.
Given the extensive benefits that will be gained from AVs, which range from a sharp decline in accidents and greater fuel efficiency, the recent accident highlights the necessity of renewing efforts on safety, testing, and data-sharing so the incidents like this one undermine their deployment.