China will be in the autonomous vehicle driver's seat if Senate doesn't act

China will be in the autonomous vehicle driver's seat if Senate doesn't act
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While Detroit and Silicon Valley race to design the car of the future, Europe and China are quietly gaining ground. 

recent report found that multiple countries, including China, are outpacing the U.S. in the deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Right now, the U.K., Germany, South Korea and Singapore are all on track to surpass the U.S. in the AV race. China is well-positioned to overtake everyone, with its technological skill and commitment to have half of all new vehicles equipped with some automation by 2020.

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The reason? All of these countries have enacted or in the process of enacting national legislation to support the testing and deployment of AVs. The U.S., on the other hand, is relying on a “checkboard of state rules” that is slowing down innovation.

 

Bipartisan legislation to support the testing and deployment of AVs has been introduced but has stalled in the U.S. Senate. The legislation, the AV START Act, would create a national framework of regulation around AV testing that would remove current roadblocks to innovation while ensuring consistent safety standards across the country. Similar legislation, the SELF DRIVE Act, unanimously passed the House last year.

By taking quick action to pass the AV START Act, the Senate would help the U.S. maintain its technological dominance and allow Americans to more quickly realize the benefits that driverless cars will bring.

The AV START Act’s purpose is to ensure that the same safety parameters are applied to AV testing across the country, instead of varying on a state-by-state basis. Right now, some states have much stricter laws around driverless cars than others, and some states don’t allow for any testing at all.

This bill would require manufacturers to submit a Safety Evaluation Report (SER) to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for approval prior to testing or deployment on our public roads, a requirement that does not currently exist.

In addition, the legislation also allows NHTSA to consider granting a time-limited exemption from current vehicle regulations that might hinder AV development. For example, how is a driverless vehicle supposed to satisfy today’s requirement that a human foot operate a brake pedal? 

The AV START Act does not diminish any of NHTSA’s existing regulatory authority to set uniform vehicle safety standards, issue recalls or investigate crashes. The legislation also assures that states retain their existing authority over things like vehicle registration, insurance, licensing and traffic safety.

This is the same approach NHTSA has taken in the past to support or spur new safety technologies: requiring vehicles to meet the same safety standards as non-exempt vehicles. These exemptions don’t actually exempt AVs from any safety requirements; they provide a mechanism for getting AV test fleets on the road, without being held up by lengthy bureaucratic rulemaking, which could take a decade or more.

The data collected from these test vehicles also will help inform NHTSA’s future rulemaking that could allow the creation of future AV safety standards.  

Innovation is one of the hallmarks of the U.S., and all of us will ultimately benefit from the innovation of autonomous vehicles and related technologies. When AVs are fully deployed, we will be able to significantly reduce — and hopefully eliminate — accidents caused by drunk, distracted and fatigued drivers.

In addition, self-driving cars will provide independence and freedom to the elderly and disabled. They will reduce congestion and costs and increase productivity.

The U.S. has a long and proud tradition of pushing the boundaries of technology. We have the potential to lead the world when it comes to driverless cars, but a patchwork approach to testing and deployment is holding us back.

If the Senate doesn’t act now to pass the AV START Act, there’s a real risk that China will lead the driverless car revolution — and we’ll be left following.

Mark Rosenker is the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and a retired major general in the Air Force Reserve. He currently serves as the president of consulting company Transportation Safety Group and provides expert commentary on transportation safety for CBS News.