Time for Congressional Action to Speed the Arrival of Self-Driving Cars

Ashley Johnson January 6, 2020
January 6, 2020

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Autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation, but so far, the United States is unprepared for them. Congress needs to act swiftly to establish consistent industry regulations that allow companies to safely test and deploy these vehicles, or it risks delaying their arrival.

America’s self-driving future promises a multitude of benefits. Most importantly, autonomous vehicles are the key to safer roadways by reducing traffic-related injuries and deaths. Human error causes up to 93 percent of traffic accidents. Autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, won’t drive while distracted, tired, texting, or inebriated, will obey traffic laws, and will be equipped with technology like automatic braking to prevent collisions. Their widespread adoption will make a serious dent in the estimated 40,000 deaths and 4.5 million serious injuries from car crashes in the United States each year.

Autonomous vehicles are also poised to deliver significant savings. In 2014 ITIF estimated that close to full adoption of AVs would generate over 1 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy. The majority of these savings will come from accident reduction and reduced traffic congestion. These numbers don’t even take into account the lifestyle improvements of a driverless future, which include increased mobility for people who are older or disabled and extra leisure time during what were previously tedious, time-sucking commutes.

Unfortunately, the United States is ill-equipped to start testing and deploying driverless cars due to the current regulatory environment. Existing federal safety regulations need to be updated for autonomous vehicles which, for example, do not necessarily require steering wheels or brake pedals. And laws need to clarify the rules for autonomous vehicles when it comes to liability, insurance, inspections, and licensing.

The last Congress saw the demise of two bills that would have governed self-driving cars. The House’s SELF DRIVE Act and the Senate’s AV START Act would have established the federal government’s role in ensuring the safety of autonomous vehicles and preempted conflicting state laws regulating their design, construction, or performance. The bills stalled out after Senate Democrats raised concerns over the implementation of safety standards, a move House and industry leaders labeled a “missed opportunity.”

Current congressional efforts have only recently begun to gain momentum as the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee released a partial draft of new autonomous vehicle legislation in October. The draft would establish a Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Council within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) comprised of public and private stakeholders that would provide recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation on issues related to autonomous vehicles. It would also temporarily exempt autonomous vehicles from current federal safety standards, which were not created with automated driving systems in mind. A month later, in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on autonomous vehicles, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) announced his intentions to introduce bipartisan legislation on the issue with Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).

These congressional efforts are still in the early stages of development, but they show promise. It’s crucial that they continue to gain momentum in the year ahead instead of falling by the wayside like the SELF DRIVE and AV START Acts. Moreover, even against the backdrop of a contentious election year, Congress needs to stand up to the Teamsters, who have successfully lobbied to have commercial trucks excluded from past attempts at federal legislation in an effort to preserve jobs. But autonomous trucks are advancing rapidly, so creating federal rules should be a priority. Otherwise, in the absence of congressional action, state lawmakers will create a patchwork of conflicting state laws. Already, as of October, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation or issued executive orders related to testing and using autonomous vehicles.

Common federal standards and protocols for safety testing and evaluation will help automakers to test and deploy AVs. With legislation that encourages innovation and supports research and development of automated driving systems, America will have a better chance of regaining competitive advantage in the auto sector. And when autonomous vehicles are legal for sale and operation across the country, everyone can take advantage of their safety, savings, and lifestyle benefits.