The Senate must act on legislation so Americans can reap the benefits of autonomous vehicles
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The myriad benefits of autonomous vehicles (AVs) are remarkable. Beginning with greater independence and enhanced mobility options for those who cannot or do not drive, to dramatically reduced road fatalities and declines in traffic congestion, the autonomous vehicle revolution promises many positive changes across the country and around the world.

The National Federation of the Blind, the country’s largest organization of blind people, has been especially enthusiastic about this exciting innovation. While blind Americans are already mobile and regularly use available transportation, we face challenges related to insufficient public transportation networks, inadequate paratransit systems, and issues of disconnectedness for those of us who may prefer to live in small towns and rural areas. These challenges play a role in driving suboptimal employment outcomes, a poverty rate that is double the national average, and community disengagement among people with disabilities.

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The AV START Act of 2017 (S. 1885) is a bipartisan bill that would lay the groundwork for the safe and rapid deployment of AVs. This bill will ensure a coherent federal framework for the proliferation of this life-changing technology while also clarifying the vital role that states and localities will play in their traditional jurisdictions. Most importantly from our perspective, the bill would require that accessibility be a key element of safety reporting and prohibit discriminatory licensing practices that could exclude blind Americans from full and equal access to AVs.

The bill would also create a working group specifically dedicated to helping craft recommendations on accessibility and other issues related to people with disabilities. In short, the AV START Act is an inclusive and pro-innovation approach to the safe and expeditious rollout of autonomous vehicles and we support it wholeheartedly.

Skeptics of the AV START Act often cite the safety risks associated with this new and disruptive technology. This critique is confusing given that AVs have the potential to radically reduce road fatalities by removing some of the dangerous human element from driving. To underscore this point, note that 94 percent of the roughly 37,000 deaths on our roads and highways last year were attributable to human error, which comes in the form of drunk or impaired driving, distracted driving, and fatigued driving. An autonomous vehicle will never be drunk and it will never be fatigued. The safety gains that could be brought about by the advent of AVs could quite literally save thousands of lives every year.

Beyond the paradox of opposition based on safety concerns, it is also confounding to observe this opposition from a historical perspective. Critics also feared the automobile and thought that replacing the horse and buggy would be far too dangerous and disruptive for America to handle. Innovation skeptics also thought that airplanes represented too much of a risk to public safety. Skepticism of autonomous vehicles can be placed in a similar category – exaggerated fear of an exciting transportation innovation that will bring innumerable societal benefits, not the least of which being greater transportation independence for the blind and other people with disabilities.

AVs, while not a silver bullet for any of the transportation-related challenges we face, do represent a powerful new addition to the toolbox that can help us live the lives we want. However, these benefits are in jeopardy if the United States Senate does not act swiftly and concertedly. Now is the time to guarantee that the United States will lead the world in yet another technological paradigm shift. We cannot afford to wait any longer – the rest of the world isn’t waiting. 

Riccobono is president of the National Federation of the Blind.