Congressional Hearing Discusses Promises and Perils of Automated Vehicles

On May 18, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce held a hearing on “Promises and Perils: The Potential of Automobile Technologies.” Members agreed that automated vehicles (AV) have the potential to make roads safer and increase the mobility of those who are elderly, disabled, or otherwise cannot drive. However, AVs face steep challenges as many unanswered questions remain on their safety, cybersecurity, racial biases, and liability, and the workforce. The hearing shows that Congress is still trying to grapple with the complexities of AV technology and creating regulations for an industry that does not yet exist.

Witnesses included:

  • Jason Levine, Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety
  • Greg Regan, President, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
  • Ragunathan Rajkumar, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

In 2020, Levine noted, there were 42,060 deaths on American roads, with chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) adding that last year 4.8 million people were injured in traffic crashes. In contrast, the entire European Union, with similar vehicle ownership and land size, had 19,000 crash deaths, fewer than half the fatal crashes in the United States.

To combat these grim statistics, AV technology holds the potential to make streets safer. After all, a machine cannot drive intoxicated or get distracted by a text message. As chairman Pallone observed, American vehicles are already being equipped with automatic braking, lane departure warnings, and blind spot detection. But compared to Europe where these automated features are often standard, Levine points out that in the U.S. these remain unregulated, optional features, subject to no sector-wide standards or widespread adoption.

In addition, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Rep. McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), and Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ), all noted how AVs could increase the mobility of those who cannot drive such as senior citizens and individuals with disabilities.

Despite the promise, full automation is at least several years away. The Society of Automotive Engineers classifies automation from Level 0 (limited driver-supported features like automatic braking) to Level 5 (fully autonomous). Current commercial development is for Level 2 systems, and as Rajkumar emphasized, Level 5 autonomy is “at least five years away if not much longer.”

Members’ AV Concerns

Despite their enthusiasm for potential safety and mobility benefits, members expressed their concerns with several aspects of the technology. For example. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) raised the issue that some AV technology performs poorly in recognizing people with darker skin tones, and pushed for support of their bill H.R. 2997 to combat this bias. In explaining this problem, Rajkumar noted that it’s not the system itself, but the AI data fed into the system that leads to biased outcomes, and hence can be solved by attaining representative datasets.

Some Members also raised concerns for the cybersecurity risks, with Representatives Fred Upton (R-MI), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), and Robin Kelly (D-IL) asking about the best way to protect against cyber threats. Both Rajkumar and Levine agreed that this is a large concern, particularly with the Colonial Pipeline hack fresh in mind. Levine argued the best way forward is for federal involvement up-front, stating his disbelief that the industry could effectively self-regulate.

Further questions remain on liability for AV accidents. For Level 1 and Level 2 systems, Levine pointed out, responsibility to oversee the technology falls on the driver. But for Level 3, 4, and 5 systems, the liability technically shifts to the technology. Industry observers worry that AV manufacturer will require a binding arbitration agreement to use the service, forcing the user to assume liability for using the vehicle. Most binding arbitration suits are settled in private, with the public never knowing what cases happen behind closed doors.

Some cases could get complicated. Levine gave one example that if someone orders a pizza delivery and gets hit by an automated delivery vehicle, the customer could be held accountable if somewhere in the delivery fine print they agreed to assume liability in order to use the service.

Through the principle of negligent entrustment, Texas law places liability of some car crashes on the owner of the vehicle. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) questioned whether it is fair to blame the owner rather than the manufacturer in the context of an AV crash. According to Levine, this is “fundamentally unfair” because the consumer purchased the AV thinking it was the perfect driving robot. Manufacturers need to be held responsible for the technology they create, so before the dawn of commercially available AVs, Congress must craft legislation that stipulates who is to be blamed when the technology goes awry.

While only Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) mentioned Tesla by name, it was clear that others such as Reps. David Joyce (R-OH) and Gus Bilrakus (R-FL) were referencing the company known for inflated technological claims and a notably rocky record for automated features. Similarly, Rajkumar chided manufacturers (implying but not citing Tesla) as mislabeling its vehicles’ capabilities: customers believe misleading marketing claims and by putting too much confidence in the vehicles’ abilities, are risking their own life as well as endangering all other road users. Rajkumar urged NHTSA to reprimand Tesla and other manufacturers who misrepresent automation’s capacity, as well as educate the public of Level 2 capabilities and limitations.

AVs as a competitive edge against China

Some Republican members warned of the dangers of inaction and Chinese AV hegemony. Rajkumar similarly warned that China is currently setting the roadmap for AVs because of their relatively lax regulatory environment and penchant for stifling disagreement, and they are advancing rapidly. These representatives argued the United States must invest in domestic AV innovation because Chinese companies could copyright the intellectual property first, with Rajkumar warning “we could end up losing the whole enchilada.” The U.S. AV market is valued at $7 trillion, and Rajkumar cautioned that the Chinese could take a large slice of the market if they develop the technology first and start exporting.

Investing in the American auto workforce

Regan and some Democratic members emphasized the importance of growing and supporting the American workforce while transiting to vehicle automation. While Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) recognized that the workforce must even adjust toward AV manufacturing, she was the only Republican to speak at length about it, as Democrats tended to show support for investing in American jobs while Republicans focused more on AVs as a competitive advantage.

It is by creating good auto worker jobs, enforcing Buy American policies, guaranteeing the reabsorption of traditional auto workers to AV workers, negotiating community benefit agreements, and encouraging workers to advance up the career ladder that Regan believes American workers can best be protected. Regan warned of seeing AV technology as a rat race and leaving American workers behind in the process. Regan and others like Representatives Pallone, Kathy Castor (FL-14), and Darren Soto (D-FL) used this emphasis on American workers to promote Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

The hearing highlighted the high potential of AVs, but the discussion also made the regulator and technology challenges ahead very apparent. Congress will need to work with the industry to develop workable policy for tough issues such as safety certification, liability, consumer rights, and cybersecurity—all while ensuring U.S. competitiveness and addressing workforce transition issues.

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