Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology has the potential to enhance safety on the nation’s roadways, reduce fuel consumption and congestion, and expand the mobility options available to a wide swath of the American population, including senior citizens and people with disabilities.
However, the federal government has not yet established a national regulatory structure for AVs, and the vast majority of federal motor vehicle regulations were written with human-driven vehicles in mind—which often conflicts with the core design and performance characteristics of AVs. This has contributed to regulatory confusion for manufacturers and, moreover, presents barriers to the deployment of vehicles that are exclusively designed for autonomous operation.
For this reason, Congress has spent the last year working on legislation that would modernize the federal government’s regulatory structure for motor vehicles and create a pathway for developing uniform and consistent standards for AVs. The House version of the bill, the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388), passed the House Energy & Commerce Committee unanimously with a 54-0 vote and on the House floor by voice vote last year.
The Senate bill, AV START (S. 1885), has already received broad support on both sides of the aisle and passed the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee by voice vote last year. AV START was written and advanced in a bipartisan effort led by Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).
While AV START awaits consideration on the Senate floor, SAFE would like to provide clarity to the discussion around AV START by addressing some of the misconceptions around the bill.
The regulatory status quo is unacceptable: The federal government currently does not have any AV-specific regulations, standards, or mandatory processes that manufacturers must follow before operating AVs on public roads.
This means that under existing federal regulations, any entity—from a tinkerer in their garage to a major automaker—can legally develop and operate an AV on public roads without the need for any communication with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or assurances of their safety, as long as the vehicle is in compliance with the existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that are designed for human-driven vehicles.
NHTSA is responsible for FMVSS—the regulatory structure for setting and enforcing the minimum safety requirements for motor vehicles operating on public roads in the United States. For decades, this regulatory framework has contributed to continuous improvements in motor vehicle safety and led to the mandatory integration of life-saving features like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock braking systems.
AV START builds upon these advances in motor vehicle safety by modernizing NHTSA’s regulatory authorities and explicitly delineating the roles of federal, state, and local governments in overseeing the safe operation of motor vehicles.
AV START will empower NHTSA to oversee the safe development of AVs: Over the past year, organizations that oppose AV START have argued that the bill fails to uphold current safety regulations and strips the federal regulatory system of its appropriate authority and oversight. This is a fundamental misreading of both the status quo and the bill itself, as AV START could not possibly strip away a regulatory structure that does not even exist. Instead, it would establish a flexible, modern framework for the federal government to oversee the safe development, testing, and eventual deployment of AVs.
This is a fundamental misreading of both the status quo and the bill itself, as AV START could not possibly strip away a regulatory structure that does not even exist.
AV START would require every manufacturer currently testing AVs to submit a Safety Evaluation Reports (SER) to NHTSA about the safety of their AVs within 90 days of enactment. Thereafter, any AV manufacturers that intend to test, sell, or deploy their vehicles must submit an SER to NHTSA at least 90 days beforehand. The SER covers nine topics ranging from cybersecurity to system safety to crashworthiness, and will be made publicly available within 60 days of submission in order to keep the public informed of the capabilities and limitations of the AVs operating on public roads. Furthermore, as the technology approaches maturity, NHTSA will be required to establish a national set of standards to protect the safety of the travelling public as AVs become commercially available.
Ultimately, this will empower policymakers at all levels of government to develop clear and consistent regulatory frameworks that will evolve with the next generation of vehicle safety technologies and provides regulatory certainty to American manufacturers.
On-road testing is vital to the development of AV technology: The successful and expeditious development of AVs requires that manufacturers have the opportunity to test their technology in a wide variety of simulated and real-world environments that will prepare them for wide-scale deployment. Many manufacturers pursue a three-pronged approach to AV development that includes testing their software and hardware in computer simulations, testing on closed tracks, and operating on public roadways.
While each type of testing is critical to the development process, there is no substitute for testing in the complex, real-world environments of public roads. Similar to how a 16-year old would not be prepared to drive in downtown Manhattan after only practicing on a computer simulator and/or circling an empty parking lot, an AV cannot and will not be prepared to operate unsupervised on public roads before it has been adequately trained to do so.
Similar to how a 16-year old would not be prepared to drive in downtown Manhattan after only practicing on a computer simulator and/or circling an empty parking lot, an AV cannot and will not be prepared to operate unsupervised on public roads before it has been adequately trained to do so.
The industry is already addressing the inherent challenges of operating on public roadways. Manufacturers like Waymo are testing in diverse weather conditions, 3M is experimenting with a variety of infrastructure redundancies to supplement AV sensors when traffic signage is concealed or lane markings are covered by snow, and manufacturers representing 99% of cars sold in the U.S. are working together to identify and respond to automotive cybersecurity threats through the Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Auto-ISAC).
Exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards should not be conflated with a reduction in overall vehicle safety: AV opponents have contended that if the bill were to pass, automakers would deploy “millions of vehicles” with “broad and unsafe exemptions.” But, as has long been the case with traditional automobiles, AV manufacturers requesting an exemption will still be required to certify that their exempted vehicle would be as safe as or safer than FMVSS-compliant vehicles in order for NHTSA to consider granting an exemption.
AV START expands NHTSA’s exemption authority in order to provide a pathway for manufacturers to introduce vehicles with novel designs into the market, including AVs that are specifically built to accommodate people with disabilities and seniors. This includes vehicles without human controls, like steering wheels or brake pedals. The Secretary will have the ability to grant exemptions to manufacturers for up to 80,000 vehicles per model per year, but only after the cap gradually increases over the three years following passage. Furthermore, the Secretary may request additional information from the manufacturer that she deems necessary in order to understand an AV’s safety features.
Even after obtaining an exemption, it is unlikely that any manufacturer would immediately produce and deploy millions of vehicles in the near future. It would only be after 4 years that manufacturers could petition the Secretary for an exemption for more than 80,000 vehicles, in which case the Secretary would be required to first evaluate the safety equivalence of the vehicles under the previous exemption compared to FMVSS-compliant vehicles.
Furthermore, the average lifespan of a vehicle in the U.S. is 11 years, meaning that the shift from human-driven to computer-driven vehicles will be a gradual and incremental process. And, given the expenses associated with developing and manufacturing AVs, it would be far too cost-prohibitive for manufacturers to put millions of vehicles on the road immediately.
The second automobile revolution must not leave anyone behind: The advent of the personal automobile unlocked tremendous economic opportunities and mobility benefits for millions of Americans. But it has also left many people behind who are unable to drive traditional automobiles, including seniors and people with disabilities.
SAFE believes that AVs present an opportunity to address the mobility challenges that are currently faced by seniors and people with disabilities. Approximately one in every five Americans—more than 57 million—have a disability, including 3.8 million veterans with service-connected disabilities. Within this population, six million Americans experience difficulty in getting essential transportation to work, medical appointments, and essential services.
Last year, SAFE published a report, Self-Driving Cars: The Impact on People with Disabilities, in conjunction with the Ruderman Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in society. The report found that using AVs to reduce transportation barriers for the disabled community could yield approximately 2 million new jobs for people with disabilities and save $19 billion annually in healthcare expenditures from missed medical appointments.
However, in order for these benefits to be realized, automakers must have the ability to build vehicles with new and novel designs that are designed to accommodate people with disabilities. Since the existing vehicle safety standards are primarily structured around human-driven vehicles and do not accommodate vehicles designed to be operated by an autonomous system, providing manufacturers with the ability to request exemptions for accessible driverless AVs through FMVSS is key for unlocking the mobility benefits presented by AVs.
Since the existing vehicle safety standards are primarily structured around human-driven vehicles and do not accommodate vehicles designed to be operated by an autonomous system, providing manufacturers with the ability to request exemptions for accessible driverless AVs through FMVSS is key for unlocking the mobility benefits presented by AVs.
Furthermore, AV START instructs USDOT to establish a Highly Automated Vehicles Technical Committee within 180 days of enactment that will provide recommendations on rulemaking, policy, and guidance on a variety of issues related to AVs, including mobility challenges for people with disabilities. Additionally, this committee will be required to form a working group that will develop voluntary best practices regarding AV accessibility for people with disabilities.
AV START reinforces the traditional roles of federal, state, and local governments: Contrary to misconceptions that have recently circulated, the bill would not reduce the authority of state and local governments. Instead, state and local governments will continue to fulfill their critical role as the boots on the ground that ensure vehicles are being safely operated on their roadways. The bill explicitly states that their historical roles will be preserved, including the authority to set and enforce traffic laws, and law enforcement agencies will not be preempted from issuing citations for AVs that violate state and/or local traffic laws.
While the advent of AVs initially appears to present a regulatory paradigm shift, it is important to understand that the federal government (through NHTSA) will continue to regulate the design, construction, and performance of vehicles—which includes how an automated system functions. Meanwhile, states will continue to be responsible for licensing human drivers, establishing and enforcing insurance requirements, and setting statewide traffic laws that must be obeyed by all road users—including AVs.
This empowers NHTSA to leverage its technical expertise to oversee the safe testing, development, and eventual deployment of AVs. This is essential to preserving a clear and consistent set of national safety standards for motor vehicle safety.
Inoperative Controls: Section 7 of AV START allows manufacturers to make vehicle controls inoperable if and only if the automated system is engaged and performing the entire task of driving. While this has generated concern among some organizations at first glance, it is essential for the safety of passengers in AVs and other road users –an accidental override or premature takeover of an AV could be catastrophic if the human driver is not aware of their vehicle’s surroundings.
We cannot afford to wait: While fully self-driving vehicles are still years away from being commercially available, AVs are already operating on public roads today. In California alone, 52 companies currently hold AV testing permits from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. And in a handful of cities, consumers are already able to e-hail rides in AVs that are being supervised (sometimes remotely) by a human operator.
In January 2017, SAFE’s Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety released a set of recommended best practices to encourage industry and regulators to collaborate on improving motor vehicle safety. In order to achieve this, policymakers must work towards a clear national framework to enable the prudent testing and development of AVs in order to begin saving American lives as soon as possible.
The tragic death of Elaine Herzberg in a collision involving a self-driving Uber this March underscored the need for a national effort to improve traffic safety for all road users—especially in light of recent year-over-year increases in traffic fatalities. NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are currently investigating the crash, which has prompted some organizations to suggest that AV START should not be passed until these investigations are complete.
If the objective of Congress is to ensure the safety of its citizens, inaction is ill-advised: delaying the passage of AV START perpetuates the status quo wherein there is no federal framework to assure AV safety and, moreover, postpones the establishment of safety standards as prescribed in the bill.
In the vast majority of these cases, the senseless loss of life could have been prevented: NHTSA estimates that 94% of collisions are caused by human error or choice.
A public health crisis is unfolding on American streets every day: The National Safety Council estimates that there were 40,100 deaths related to motor vehicle collisions in 2017. In the vast majority of these cases, the senseless loss of life could have been prevented: NHTSA estimates that 94% of collisions are caused by human error or choice. Among the most common primary factors are speeding, driving under the influence, and distracted driving—each of which can be addressed by AVs.
Therefore, in consideration of the pressing need for a uniform federal safety framework and the significant social and economic benefits of AVs, SAFE strongly urges the Senate to expediently consider and pass AV START.