Safety advocates delaying an opportunity for safer roads
© Getty

Millions of Americans, including nearly 20 million disabled Americans that experience daily barriers to transportation, would stand to benefit from the U.S. Senate passing its driverless car bill due to the increase in access and safety these vehicles will one day provide.

The Senate’s bill, the AV START Act, presents an opportunity to establish the nation’s first self-driving laws, paving the way for a durable federal framework that will provide much-needed clarity and promote the safe development, testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

ADVERTISEMENT

Surprisingly, the loudest voices delaying the establishment of additional safety standards for self-driving cars, higher standards than the current status quo, are safety and consumer advocates themselves.

Currently, no federal regulations, standards, or mandatory processes pertaining specifically to the safety level of AV systems exists. The implementation of a uniform regulatory framework, detailed in both the House’s SELF DRIVE Act and the Senate’s AV START Act, will empower the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to oversee the safe development of this nascent technology.

Many believe that self-driving cars will be an important tool to help address the climbing death toll on U.S. roadways. In 2017 40,100 people died from vehicle accidents, an increase of 6 percent from 2015 statistics. Driverless vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce these numerous tragedies, as data shows approximately 94 percent of crashes are due wholly or in part to driver error. Yet safety and consumer advocates are sounding a false alarm, risking the development and deployment of AVs—and worse, delaying the creation of the very guardrails that would increase safety.

The stoppage of this bill would not only stop a much needed framework for driverless cars, but it would also prevent other roadway safety benefits from becoming law, including AV START Act’s current requirement that all new cars have a “hot car” alarm to prevent parents from accidentally leaving children behind in the back seat.

This legislation would allow for the development of a multi-pronged, national regulatory framework that would improve transparency and safety throughout the AV research, testing and development process. It would also provide a clear path to the creation of performance-based regulation of self-driving vehicles.

One of the most important provisions is the requirement that NHTSA must construct comprehensive safety regulations for AVs with a mandated, accelerated timeline for rulemaking. By establishing and leveraging an AV technical committee of industry experts and stakeholders it will allow NHTSA to construct high-quality safety regulations faster than it could without the passage of federal legislation.

Until these regulations are written, the quality of the software used for self-driving development will remain largely unregulated at the federal level.

Comprehensive self-driving regulations could take more than five years, even with the accelerated timeline, but the bill puts in place an interim regulatory framework that requires manufacturers to submit a Safety Evaluation Report addressing a range of key areas at least 90 days before testing, selling, or commercialization of an driverless cars. This action provides the transparency and accountability that advocates are asking for, by requiring industry participants to proactively go on the record with regulators to publicly explain what makes their driverless vehicles safe.

Critics of federal legislation have also seized on the term ‘exemptions’, mischaracterizing these required and detailed federal filings as an easy loophole or suspension of the conventional vehicle safety rules companies must adhere to. This characterization is baffling and false. The relevant exemption statute requires that any company applying for exemptions must demonstrate to regulators that their vehicle is as safe as any other on the roadway. Historically, about half of exemption requests have been denied for this exact reason.

In practice, exemptions are meant to be a legal pathway for vehicle manufacturers to incorporate new vehicle designs and technologies that may not meet federal motor vehicle standards, but at the same time do not compromise on safety. In the future, driverless cars with approved exemptions would consequently be among the most vetted cars on the road.

For decades, safety groups have played a pivotal role in ensuring greater protections and have successfully reduced the risks for the millions of Americans who use the nation’s roads every day. However, if we are to unlock the potential roadway safety benefits self-driving cars can provide, the Senate must expeditiously pass the AV START Act. That means safety and consumer advocates should support, not oppose, this critical opportunity to increase roadway safety.

Robbie Diamond, President and CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). SAFE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit focused on reducing America’s dependence on oil through policies and actions that improve the efficiency of the transportation sector.