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Driverless U.S. Senate

by Roger Lanctot | Oct 04, 2017

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is considering autonomous vehicle legislation today – the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act (AV START Act, S. 1885.). The bill is the first significant effort by legislators, following the passage of a similar bill in the House, to assert Federal oversight of autonomous vehicles. - AV Start Act, S. 1885

Support for the bill in the autonomous vehicle and auto maker community is strong, which, to me, makes it immediately suspicious. A broad spectrum of safety advocates are opposed and expressed those objections in a conference call Tuesday. - Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety media call

My main objection to the legislation is the lack of a defined objective to the legislation. Auto makers and autonomous vehicle startups appear to be pursuing vehicle automation for its own sake. The Senate bill ought to represent an opportunity for legislators to define the purpose of these efforts - particularly in the unstated but obvious context that consumers are not likely to actually BUY autonomous vehicles.

The bill requires a wide range of reporting on vehicle operations and design and calls for the creation of an oversight committee of uncompensated experts. But the bill represents an unfunded mandate as it puts much of the oversight and review responsibility onto an already overburdened and ill-prepared U.S. Department of Transportation and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

It was NHTSA's lack of a position on autonomous vehicles, embarrassingly revealed by the prior Administrator, Mark Rosekind, when he visited with European transportation leaders in 2016 without an AV regulatory framework to offer. This policy vacuum was also apparent as individual U.S. states began opening their roadways to AVs with differing regulatory regimes and licensing processes - i.e. differing policies between California and Nevada regarding AVs was one flash point.

Frustrated at their dealings with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, AV startups and lobbyists turned their attention to Washington. Hence, the provision in the legislation to pre-empt state regulations.

Missing from the legislation is a statement of purpose other than to regulate for the sake of regulation rather than to define the objective of developing autonomous vehicles in the first place. Unspoke by all is the likely reality that autonomous vehicles will not be purchased by consumers but, rather, will become a core element of an evolving public transportation landscape introducing entirely new vehicle concepts and technology.

For opponents the ever-growing per-car maker exemption of candidate autonomous vehicles from safety regulation (to rise steadily from 2,500 to 100,000) is nothing less than a massive de-regulation initiative on the part of the automobile industry. Of more serious concern to me is the fact that trucks and other commercial vehicles were excluded from the legislation at the behest of union lobbyists. Commercial vehicles are likely to lead the autonomous vehicle charge and should most definitely have been a focal point not an excluded element of the bill.

AHAS has a longer list of objections:

For me, the AV Start Act is a piece of hastily cobbled together legislation intended to fix a regulatory blindspot while expanding safety exemptions. Combined with the increasing inclination of NHTSA to emphasize voluntary guidelines to patching other regulatory holes it marks an ongoing unraveling of vehicle safety regulations at a time when highway fatalities are on the rise.

It is hoped that autonomous vehicle technology will help mitigate the rising death toll on U.S. highways. The current bill allows too many exemptions, provides no resources for NHTSA to manage the complex processes it proposes, pre-empts state regulation which is actually further evolved than Federal resources, and excludes trucks which are likely to see the first implementations and reap the earliest benefits of autonomous driving tech.

The Senate needs to go back to the drawing board on this one. First and foremost the Senate needs to define the objective of autonomous vehicle technology. We can't regulate for the sake of regulation. We can't achieve the objective (saving lives? saving time? reducing congestion and emissions?) if we don't define the objective. Also, knowing the objective will help determine how it is to be achieved.

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