House Appropriators Consider Federal Funding for Emerging Technologies (Part Two: AVs and NHTSA)

June 1, 2017

(Click here to read Part 1: Drones and the FAA)

At a May 18 hearing on emerging transportation technologies, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development met to examine the status of autonomous vehicle (AV) and drone technology (unmanned aircraft systems, or drones) in order to determine the appropriate scope and scale of federal funding to support their safe deployment.

The panel of witnesses featured experts in research and advocacy efforts surrounding these new technologies, including Dr Nidhi Kalra – a leading expert in the field of AV safety research:

  • David Strickland, Counsel and Spokesperson for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (testimony)
  • Nidhi Kalra, Ph.D., Senior Information Scientist for the RAND Corporation (testimony)
  • Professor Mikel Kochenderfer, Stanford University Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (testimony)
  • Brian Wynne, President and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (testimony)

While drones and AVs leapt into the public eye almost simultaneously, many of the similarities end there. AV technology has matured at a dramatically slower rate – largely because drones operate in environments that are sparsely used, compared to the complex surface transportation networks in which AVs will operate.

To illustrate, consumers had already purchased and registered 495,000 drones for recreational use in June 2016, but zero consumers own an AV today that can fully drive itself. AV technology still need more years of research and development before humans to fully surrender the task of driving to an automated system.

A critical component of this research and development is testing automated driving systems on public roads – which places increased demands on the government entities responsible for motor vehicle safety and enforcing traffic laws. There are already 30 companies testing AV technologies testing AVs in California including tech firms like Waymo, automakers like Mercedes Benz, and smaller startups like AutoX.

The tremendous public attention directed at AVs, as well as the lack of federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) regulating their design and performance, has prompted as many as 39 states to consider policies pertaining to AVs. Fourteen of those states have enacted AV policies that vary widely in scope and scale, resulting in a patchwork of disparate regulations across the country that may ultimately slow the testing and deployment of AVs in the long run.

Strickland, a former NHTSA Administrator and spokesperson for the industry group Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, recommended that NHTSA should be given the authorities and resources to alleviate the regulatory uncertainty faced by AV developers.

Strickland stated that NHTSA took the right step forward by issuing its Federal Automated Vehicle Policy Statement (FAVP) last year, which clarified the agency’s expectations for AV developers and clearly delineated the roles of the federal, state, and local governments in regulating motor vehicles and traffic safety.

“NHTSA is very much on track,” he said, “but it does have limitations.”

In his testimony, Strickland recommended that Congress and NHTSA should take the following actions:

  1. Update FMVSS to accommodate the different design requirements for AVs.
  2. Revise NHTSA’s exemption authority to allow for a greater number of vehicles to be allowed on the road for testing and deployment of HAVs.​
  3. Encourage a single voluntary national framework for HAVs focused on safety assurance. ​

In addition, Strickland said, Congress should provide NHTSA – particularly the counsel’s office – with additional resources that will allow the agency to evaluate requests for FMVSS exemptions and eventually enforce any FMVSS created for AVs.

Meanwhile, Kalra emphasized the dire need for “feasible and sound methods of testing [AV] safety.” Referencing a recent ETW article that revealed policymakers are considering raising FMVSS exemption caps from 2,500 vehicles to 100,000, Kalra proposed a two-phased approach to exemptions.

Under this framework, NHTSA could initially provide AV developers with smaller exemptions on the basis that their vehicle designs are as safe or safer than FMVSS-compliant vehicles. After empirically demonstrating the safety of their AVs through deployment on public roads, NHTSA could then increase the exemption cap for that manufacturer’s AVs.

Kalra emphasized that AVs have a tremendous potential to expand mobility options for seniors and people with disabilities. “Mobility is essential for a rich, productive, and healthy life,” she said, going on to state that AVs have the potential to drive down transportation costs and reduce the risk of seniors – and the entire public – being involved in traffic collisions.

Responding to a question from Rep. David Young (R-IA 3), both Strickland and Kalra stated that AVs do not necessarily require massive investments in vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology.

“[It would be] hugely beneficial,” said Strickland, “but not essential to have V2I.” Strickland continued, “it’s unsexy… [but more important] to have better line paint.”

Kalra concurred. “Basic stuff… will improve safety for almost everyone.”

As the hearing drew to a close, Diaz-Balart questioned whether there was a need to reconsider the federal government’s current investments in infrastructure.

“Are we funding the horse and buggy?” he asked.

“No,” laughed Strickland.

“We’re funding the spoke and wheel,” he said, “[and] this is about making infrastructure more efficient.” Strickland reinforced the continued importance of traditional infrastructure investments, including funding for public transit.


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