While advancements in vehicle technology have made today’s automobiles safer, tragically, last year over 37,000 lives were lost on America’s roadways—that’s more than 100 lives every day. This year, Congress has a historic opportunity to help save lives and make our roads safer by passing bipartisan legislation to authorize the safe deployment of self-driving vehicle technologies.
Self-driving vehicles, also called autonomous vehicles or “AVs,” offer a real solution. That’s because human choice or error is a critical reason in 94 percent of traffic crashes in the United States. AVs could largely eliminate human error, and potentially save tens of thousands of lives every year. At the same time, AVs have tremendous potential to reduce congestion and emissions, provide broader access to transportation, and increase mobility and independence for those who currently cannot drive due to age, disability or other factors.
Right now, Congress has the opportunity to pass legislation that allows for the safe deployment of AVs while fostering continued safety innovations that maintain U.S. leadership in this important field. Pending federal legislation would advance these vital safety technologies through three primary provisions:
First, by directing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue new and revised safety regulations governing AVs on an expedited basis. Revised regulations could remove roadblocks to deployment of AVs that do not have equipment needed only by human drivers—such as a steering wheel or brake pedal. New regulations could also provide safety standards for new equipment introduced by AVs.
Second, by allowing AV manufacturers to seek permission to deploy limited numbers of self-driving vehicles that meet the safety purpose of federal standards through different means. For example, if an AV does not have a steering wheel, the manufacturer would be required to prove to NHTSA that the safety level provided by the AV is equivalent to a conventional vehicle with a steering wheel. This temporary provision would serve as a regulatory bridge, allowing safe deployment of lifesaving AV technologies during the period between the enactment of AV legislation and NHTSA’s issuance of new regulations for AVs. Importantly, the Department of Transportation would maintain its safety oversight of all vehicles, including AVs. Also, NHTSA would retain authority to investigate or recall any vehicle or equipment found to pose an unreasonable risk to safety.
Third, through clearly dividing AV regulatory responsibilities between federal, state, and local governments. This will help to avoid conflicting state and federal government regulations. It also would help to prevent a patchwork of conflicting state laws – while protecting traditional state powers to regulate matters such as traffic laws and rules of the road, vehicle registration and inspection, liability and insurance.
The pending federal AV legislation embodies reasonable policies that can pave the way for the measured deployment of safe autonomous vehicles that don’t drive impaired, don’t drive tired, and don’t drive distracted. As a nation, we have a responsibility to investigate how to best introduce self-driving technologies, which have the potential to help save thousands of lives. Hard work by many in Congress has a bipartisan framework on the cusp of passage, but time is running out for this Congress to take action on these pressing safety concerns. We urge Congress to pass AV legislation now.
Scott Hall is the director of the Coalition for Future Mobility, a 37-member group that advocates for greater road safety, cleaner air and enhanced independence and self-sufficiency through the development and deployment of Highly Automated Vehicle (HAV) technologies.