On Wednesday, Congress held its first hearing on autonomous vehicles in more than two years, and there wasn’t much to show for it. At the end of the four-and-a-half-hour event, there was no indication that lawmakers were any closer to a consensus on how best to regulate this rapidly emerging technology.
AV legislation has now stalled in Congress for more than five years, with lawmakers unable to reconcile disagreements over proposals to increase the number of autonomous vehicles on the road and ban states from setting their own performance standards. And after yesterday’s hearing, it was clear that a new set of concerns has arisen in the meantime, including the need to protect workers displaced by automation and to differentiate between advanced driver assistance systems and AVs.
In fact, those new concerns have almost completely replaced the old discussions of safety exemptions and liability issues. During the hearing, AV industry representatives made little effort to urge lawmakers to pass legislation and only half-hearted efforts to remind members that the current patchwork of state rules across the country was hindering the wider deployment of AVs.
The U.S. Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act “has been in limbo for at least half a decade,” said Representative Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.). The bill would give automakers more leeway to produce and deploy vehicles without traditional controls, such as steering wheels, side mirrors and pedals. It would also prevent states and cities from passing laws regarding autonomous vehicles.
Democrats objected to green-lighting the mass rollout of robotic vehicles without strict safety and liability rules. And after several failed attempts, the lawmakers basically gave up on passing it — and the AV industry similarly stopped pushing for its approval. Instead, AV operators have turned their attention to the Biden administration’s efforts to develop a framework for AV safety through the federal regulatory process — while still highlighting their frustration at Congress’ lack of action.
“That is certainly not workable for an efficient rollout of the technology, nor is it workable for even realizing the potential [of AVs]Nat Beuse, vice president of safety at AV company Aurora, said when asked about the patchwork of state laws related to AV deployment. “That’s a framework that just doesn’t work.”
But instead of pushing for the approval of AV START, which would replace the patchwork of state rules with a national framework, Beuse cited several proposed rules from the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that have a greater chance of success. . than anything a very divided Congress would have to pass.
Essentially, the AV industry is learning to live with the current patchwork system. And the message to Congress was to stay away from the AV industry. Laws and regulations should be “technology and business neutral,” Beuse said. And anything to do with jobs being lost to automation was premature at best.
Some lawmakers with autonomous vehicles operating in their districts are understandably optimistic about the industry’s future. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Penn.) called Aurora “an incredible, forward-looking company” while praising Beuse’s work at Uber before joining Aurora as chief of safety. (No report of Uber’s involvement in the first fatal accident involving a pedestrian from an autonomous vehicle.)
However, other members were more skeptical of the claim that AVs could make a difference in reducing road deaths. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) put forth the statistic that “94 percent of road accidents are caused by human error” — an erroneous data point nonetheless used for years by the AV industry as a talking point to make the argument that robotic drivers are preferred. above human.
“In fact, many structural issues come into play in road accidents, including the distance between zebra crossings and … the width of a lane as the speed limit changes, and the presence or absence of bike lanes,” Johnson said. “The idea that self-driving cars are the solution misses the bigger picture.”
But while AV operators rarely use the “94 percent” figure anymore, they haven’t completely abandoned it as a topic of conversation. Last week, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg unveiled a comprehensive new road safety plan, in which the government states that “the vast majority of serious and fatal accidents involve at least one human behavior problem as a contributing factor.”
The safety plan doesn’t specifically link the idea of human error in road accidents to the need to replace human drivers with autonomous vehicles — but the AV industry doesn’t need much incentive. Ariel Wolf, General Advisor to the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, called it a “key point… The autonomous vehicle industry exists primarily to address that safety shortfall as a contributor to the crisis on our roads.”