Autonomous vehicles (AV) are already on U.S. roads, but the fast-growing industry will have to overcome fears from policymakers and the general public before driverless cars and trucks are widely adopted.

Roughly 6 in 10 Americans would not want to ride in a driverless passenger vehicle if they had the opportunity, according to a November Pew Research Center poll. Nearly the same percentage of respondents said they oppose the use of driverless tractor-trailers, an area that the AV industry sees as a key frontier to alleviate a shortage of truck drivers.

In Congress, bipartisan legislation to fast-track AV adoption has stalled after some prominent lawmakers raised concerns about how the technology would impact jobs and the safety of drivers and pedestrians. The bill would enable AV companies to deploy large numbers of driverless cars and trucks, a provision the industry needs to accelerate implementation.

While fully automated cars are not yet available for purchase, the technology is being tested in various states. 

Cruise, an AV company owned by General Motors, is currently operating a driverless taxi service in San Francisco. Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, is running its own autonomous taxi program in Phoenix. Autonomous trucks from TuSimple have already driven hundreds of highway miles as the startup aims to commercialize its AV fleet by 2024.

Ariel Wolf, general counsel at the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, which represents carmakers and AV pioneers including Ford, Volvo, Cruise, Uber and Waymo, said that the industry’s number one message to lawmakers is that AVs will make roads significantly safer.

“The reality is that putting everything else aside, autonomous vehicles do not drive drunk, they don’t drive impaired, they don’t speed,” he said. “So many of the factors that contribute to the overwhelming majority of fatal crashes are removed, and that’s really the lodestar of this industry.”

AV companies are pitching driverless cars as an antidote to increasingly dangerous driving habits. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported nearly 32,000 traffic fatalities in the first nine months of 2021, the highest death count in 15 years.

The industry frequently points to a 2015 NHTSA study finding that human error was the “critical reason” behind 94 percent of serious crashes.

The figure has come under criticism from road safety advocates who say that it ignores structural issues with the design of U.S. roadways and excuses federal regulators for failing to mandate automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection and other advanced safety features typically reserved for higher-trim vehicle models.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group backed by insurance companies and medical and consumer organizations, told a House panel in February that Congress should focus on requiring proven driver assistance features in order to improve safety, rather than greenlight newer, less time-tested autonomous technologies.

“AVs may, in the distant future, as many renowned industry and public officials have explained, bring about meaningful societal benefits and improvements to public safety but it will require implementing and enforcing mandatory comprehensive safeguards to ensure AV technology is developed without putting the public at risk,” she told lawmakers.

Prominent Democrats, including Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, have raised doubts about the safety benefits of AVs, particularly after an autonomous Uber test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018.

That same year, Senate Democrats sank a House-passed bipartisan bill to greatly expand the number of AVs each manufacturer can legally produce and establish a federal framework to regulate AVs, dealing a blow to the industry.

The decision came after a powerful lobbying group representing trial lawyers said the bill would hurt the rights of drivers and passengers. The AV industry will also have to find a compromise with labor unions, which have expressed concern about the threat of job losses for truckers and taxi and delivery drivers.

“Automation is industry’s answer to a driver retention problem that the industry itself created,” Teamsters official Doug Bloch told lawmakers in February. “The solution is not to do away with the humans, but to better enforce our labor laws and bring back good jobs.”

AV companies say that driverless trucks will help unsnarl the nation’s clogged supply chains that have suffered from a shortage of truck drivers. The U.S. faced a deficit of 80,000 truckers last year, a figure that could grow to 160,000 by 2030, according to American Trucking Associations.

“There’s a lot of job opportunities with different education and skill levels,” Wolf said, referring to new positions created by the AVs. “Many of these jobs don’t require a college degree. We’re talking service technicians, vehicle safety drivers, remote assistance operators.”

While Congress hasn’t moved on AV legislation, the majority of U.S. states have enacted policies to enable driverless vehicles, and the Department of Transportation in March issued updated safety standards for AVs.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told senators recently that AVs will play a significant role in the future, but he warned that he cannot implement a comprehensive regulatory framework without direction from Congress.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, told Buttigieg that his agency needs to establish a regulatory framework without Congress so that the U.S. doesn’t fall behind other nations in the race to improve AV technology.

Several senators on both sides of the aisle echoed Thune’s sentiment, indicating that lawmakers have accepted that they won’t be able to work out a deal on AV legislation anytime soon.

–Updated 11:50 a.m. Wednesday

Tags Autonomous vehicles

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