From 0 to 60, the driverless car transportation revolution is coming
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Once thought to be the realm of science fiction, autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality. This technology has the potential to transform transportation in the United States, and beyond.  However, to reach this potential, it is important that policymakers focus on an innovation-friendly regulatory regime, and Congress has a key role to play.

Over the past five months, the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress has convened leaders from government, the private sector, and academia for conversations about how innovation in the field of autonomous intersects the complex regulatory environment surrounding transportation.  These discussions identified key recommendations for policymakers and regulators pondering these questions.

First and foremost, autonomous vehicle technology will have immense impacts on the safety, efficiency, and accessibility of transportation.  As much of this technology is still in the developmental stage — and is increasingly being tested in virtual environments, test tracks, and on some public roadways — it is important that the regulatory environment be structured in a way that encourages innovation.  


At the federal level, the National Highway Transit Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been at the forefront of this effort, balancing concerns about the safety and security of the technology with the vision of its broader benefits for roadway safety.  The September 2016 Federal Automated Vehicles Policy serves as a valuable foundation for policymakers’ examinations of future policies.

Key to NHTSA’s future role in this technology is the role that Congress will play in adjusting NHTSA’s statutory authorities for vehicle testing, while also preventing the creation of approval regimes for autonomous vehicle technology that are overly onerous.  Under current statute, NHTSA can issue to manufacturers a limited exemption from roadway safety standards — 2,500 vehicles per year for a two-year period — for the testing of vehicles.  

Working with NHTSA, Congress can restructure or eliminate this cap in a manner that allows for greater testing of these vehicles, thus ensuring continued development of hardware and improved “learning” by autonomous vehicle software.

Conversely, Congress can play a key role in ensuring that autonomous vehicles do not face greater regulatory hurdles compared to traditional vehicles.  If autonomous vehicles were to face disadvantages compared to traditional vehicles, it could stymie their testing and eventual adoption by private and commercial operators.  Therefore, Congress should avoid statutory measures that may require pre-market approval authority, which would subject the technology to regulatory hurdles that stand in stark contrast to existing processes for federal vehicle safety certification.

Federal policymakers, including Congressional leaders, should also emphasize the Federal government’s role in ensuring that transportation safety standards are set at the national level, while states continue their traditional role in areas such as licensing, insurance, and traffic laws.  One can currently operate a vehicle from coast-to-coast, knowing that the only differences when crossing state lines may be speed limits or traffic laws.  

If a patchwork of state-by-state regulations are developed regarding the specific features of autonomous vehicles, such an outcome would also disadvantage this promising technology.

To encourage innovation, Congress must also understand that the autonomous vehicle marketplace includes a wide range of private sector participants, ranging from automobile manufacturers, ridesharing firms, tech companies, and entrepreneurial startups.  Policies must avoid regulatory capture that prevents innovators’ access to both testing opportunities and vehicle markets.  Key to this is fostering a stronger dialogue between tech innovators and Washington — which is vital for this field as well as many other cutting-edge industries.

Finally, much of the discussion about autonomous vehicle technology is now turning to an issue that is important to many voters — jobs.  While this technology will transform a wide range of transportation industries, we must avoid the knee-jerk reaction that autonomy equals job losses.  The United States is a technology leader, as we are already ahead of many other major manufacturing competitors and their regulatory hurdles for this technology.  The focus should be on how these technologies will create new job opportunities by ensuring U.S. leadership in this field.

While there has been limited attention to this topic by Congress, the autonomous vehicle revolution is already underway.  As it will increasingly be discussed both in Capitol Hill committee rooms and around dining room tables, it is important that America’s policymakers seek an environment that encourages innovation and facilitates this promising technology.

Dan Mahaffee is the Senior Vice President & Director of Policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a non-profit, non-partisan Washington, D.C., think tank.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.