The safe and equitable road forward on autonomous vehicles starts with proven technologies to save lives
© iStockphoto

In the history of the U.S., economic downturns and less traffic generally have been associated with fewer fatalities. Not so in 2020 — even though one would think people would drive cautiously to avoid crashing and landing in an emergency room risking exposure to COVID-19. In fact, the crash fatality rate was up 23 percent during the first nine months, compared to 2019. This spike has revived conversations about fast-tracking autonomous vehicles (AVs). However, putting nascent, unproven AVs on public roadways will further complicate roadway conditions and lead to even more danger for all road users.

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, a leading AV company, commented on the complexities of AV deployment last month, “It’s an extraordinary grind. I would say it’s a bigger challenge than launching a rocket and putting it in orbit around the Earth... because it has to be done safely over and over and over again.”  This challenge is underscored by numerous crashes involving cars with automated driving systems (ADS), several of which have been investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Achieving safe deployment cannot be left in the hands of the industries that have and continue to invest billions of dollars into research and development, and some members with a reputation for and history of cutting corners in the race to mass AV use. Rather, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), whose mission is to ensure “America has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world,” must establish comprehensive regulations.

However, the core of the push for AV legislation by the industry has been just the opposite, namely, attempts to get mass exemptions from safety standards. This is evidenced in previous bills that would have allowed for potentially millions of vehicles with exemptions from safety standards to be sold. As part of this lobbying effort, there has been sleight of hand in the messaging for this legislation — saying it is needed for “testing and deployment.” This characterization ignores the fact that federal law allows original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to test an unlimited number of AVs not in compliance with safety standards. Federal law also allows OEMs to apply for exemptions from safety standards for vehicles they want to sell. Rather than using this existing process, the industry wants to circumvent it via legislation which would be disastrous for public safety.

ADVERTISEMENT

Another misleading reason being used to rush legislation, which continues to reverberate in an echo chamber on Capitol Hill, is that the U.S. will fall behind China in the race for the “golden ticket” of AVs. Yet, a report by KPMG shows the U.S. is fourth in readiness for AVs, while China is 20th.

The U.S. is, however, lagging in deploying safety technologies known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), which are already widely used in places like Europe, Australia, Japan and Korea. This technology has been shown to reduce crashes, in some cases by more than 50 percent. Unfortunately, these innovations remain unaffordable for many families because they are often included in add-on luxury packages or on high-end models. The Biden-Harris administration is rightly committed to advancing equity. Requiring new vehicles to include ADAS is a step toward making safety equitable as all road users would benefit eventually, not only those who could afford the upcharge. Similarly, the administration has prioritized climate change and supporting American manufacturing through the domestic production of electric vehicles (EVs). When automakers are reconfiguring their production lines for EVs, it is an efficient and economical opportunity to include crash avoidance technologies as standard equipment. Moreover, the U.S. House of Representatives already passed legislation to require ADAS in new vehicles last July. Not moving forward with ADAS is akin to saying, we don’t want a proven vaccine, we’ll wait for the eradication of the disease.

Currently, the public is fearful of AVs, and for good reason. Polls have demonstrated overwhelming concerns about sharing the road with driverless cars. However, this trepidation could be allayed by the issuance of minimum safety standards, broad support for which was also conveyed in the polls. Setting standards — like has been done for cars for over 50 years — will be a floor, not a ceiling, from which AV manufacturers can innovate. If and when Congress moves forward with AV legislation, it will be essential that this sentiment is paid heed.

Over the last couple of years, numerous experts and stakeholders have collaborated to develop the AV Tenets which prioritize the safety of all road users, guarantee accessibility and equity, preserve consumer and worker rights, and ensure local control and sustainable transportation. These positions, which are supported by 60 organizations representing public health and safety, labor, people with disabilities, bicyclists and pedestrians, law enforcement, equity, smart growth, and others, should be used as a basis for future policy. One example of a policy included is a “vision test” for AVs.  With the vehicle taking over the responsibility to “see” from a human driver, a regulation is needed to guarantee it will operate on all roads and weather conditions as well as properly detect and respond to all vehicles, people and objects in the roadway environment. It is commonsense standards like this one which can help pave a safe and responsible path forward for AVs. We are ready to work with Congress and the U.S. DOT to accomplish this task, but the immediate priority must be to advance verified technology that will save lives now.

Cathy Chase is president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.