As self-driving vehicle technology moves forward, federal regulations must keep pace
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America has always been the leader of cutting-edge technologies – and nowhere is that better exemplified today than with self-driving vehicles. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the way Americans travel by making our roads safer, cleaner and more accessible. Self-driving vehicle technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, but government regulations have not kept pace with the rate of innovation. This must change for America to remain the birthplace of new technologies – and reap the safety, economic, and environmental benefits that these innovations will deliver.

Many existing motor vehicle laws were written at a time when only human drivers were a consideration. But as self-driving technology advances, so too must the rules that regulate automotive technology. We believe there must be a clear path to expeditiously update the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) – the regulations that guide the motor vehicle industry – many of which require a human driver and human driver controls in the vehicle.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – NHTSA – is responsible for maintaining and administering these regulations. NHTSA’s mission is to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity.” To truly pursue that mission, NHTSA must update the FMVSS to address recent developments in the automotive industry, and enable the deployment of self-driving vehicles. Only then can Americans fully realize the benefits of self-driving vehicle technology. 

We support the deployment of self-driving vehicles because we represent organizations whose members are eager to take advantage of their many benefits.

The American Council of the Blind believes that the safe testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles will expand opportunities for people living with disabilities. People with visual impairments, who are currently unable to operate vehicles independently, could be more independent and empowered.

Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) is excited about the potential for self-driving vehicles – many of which will be electric and deployed in ride-sharing fleets – to expedite the transition away from petroleum fuels in the transportation sector and contribute to America’s economic growth. According to a study jointly commissioned by Securing America’s Future Energy and the Ruderman Family Foundation, if people living with disabilities had access to self-driving transportation, up to 2 million more people could have access to employment.

Perhaps most important, however, are the safety benefits of the technology. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to put an end to drunk driving, a leading cause of vehicle accidents. In 2016 alone, drunk driving caused over 10,000 vehicle crash fatalities. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) supports self-driving vehicles because of their potential to eliminate drunk and drugged driving. 

Self-driving vehicles have great potential to increase overall roadway safety. According to NHTSA, in 2016, there were nearly 38,000 motor vehicle crash fatalities. NHTSA has also estimated than 94 percent of vehicle crashes are the result of human error or behavior. Self-driving technology has the potential to dramatically reduce such incidents by eliminating risky human behavior like speeding, aggressive driving, distracted or impaired driving, and slow reaction times.

But, technological developments can only go as far as federal regulations allow. In order for Americans to get the most benefit, we need NHTSA to act quickly to update the FMVSS. We commend NHTSA for holding a workshop on removing regulatory barriers for automated driving systems, and encourage the agency to move boldly to keep up with technological advances to fully realize the benefits of self-driving vehicles. If they do, our communities will thrive, our roads will be safer and countless lives will be saved.

J.T. Griffin is Chief Government Affairs Officer, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Anthony Stephens is Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs, American Council of the Blind. Leslie Hayward is Vice President, Content and Communications Strategy, Securing America’s Future Energy