House Spins Wheels Reviewing Autonomous Vehicle Technology

KITT, Herbie, the Batmobile – autonomous vehicles (AVs) have captured the public imagination for decades. Now, they’ve captured the attention of Congress as vehicles equipped with driver assistance technology and even purportedly “self-driving” vehicles hit streets across the country. On February 2, the House Subcommittee on Highways sand Transit held a hearing to explore the impact of AV deployment throughout the U.S. Despite the fact that this is the first automated vehicle hearing for the subcommittee since 2013, many of the issues, challenges, and proposed solutions remain unchanged.

Witnesses included (click their name for their written testimony):

Martha Castext-Tatum, Vice Mayor Pro Tem and Councilmember, District K, Houston, TX, on Behalf of the National League of Cities

Scott Marler, Director, Iowa Department of Transportation, on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

John Samuelsen, International President, Transport Workers Union of America

Catherine Chase, President, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

Nat Beuse, Vice President of Safety, Aurora

Doug Bloch, Political Director, Teamsters Joint Council 7

Nico Larco, Professor and Director of the Urbanism Next Center, University of Oregon

Ariel Wolf, Esq., General Counsel, Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association


Subcommittee chair Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) opened the hearing expressing that “automatic vehicles are on the cusp of transforming our transportation system.” As the U.S. experiences rising roadway fatalities, Norton pointed out that AVs have the potential to reduce crashes as well as provide new avenues for accessibility and equity. However, Norton clarified that these technologies should be held to the highest possible safety standards, particularly for the sake of road users like pedestrians, cyclists, and “those who scoot.”  Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, mostly agreed with Norton, emphasizing that because 94 percent of serious crashes are due to human driver error (a statistic disputed by some), AV technology would increase safety and save lives. Additionally, Davis stated that AV implementation would address economic issues. AVs provide solutions for supply chain disruptions and bottlenecks, creating more efficient supply chains and ultimately delivering cheaper goods.

Full committee chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) echoed Norton’s sentiments, stating that although AVs show tremendous promise, they also pose a tremendous challenge to regulators. Citing the recent 34 unexpected brake activations by Tesla assisted driver technology (concerns shared by his Senate colleagues Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)), DeFazio was emphatic that regulations should not be done on a state-by-state basis. Instead, he advocated strongly for the creation of federal regulations and standards to ensure that AV regulation was done “right.”

Diverse Drivers

A common request by almost every panelist at the hearing was the creation of clear federal AV safety standards. Although groups like the Society of Automotive Engineers have released definitions of varying levels of automation and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) continues to release updated AV principles, administration efforts, and leadership standards, none of these regulations are legally enforceable. However, as much as the panelists agreed on the creation of clear federal guidelines, there were almost as many motivations as there were panelists. Roughly, the panelists could be broken down into four groups: AV, labor, safety, and pilot advocates.

Ariel Wolf (AVIA) and Nat Beuse (Aurora) consistently argued on behalf of AVs, representing an AV industry group and AV development company, respectively. Both advocated for the adoption of clear federal guidelines so as to deliver the benefits of AVs safely, quickly, and widely. With Level 4 AVs testing in places such as California and Texas, the two continuously emphasized that the industry can change lives for the better by creating safer streets, expanding independence, and providing more opportunities for equitable transportation options. Clear federal policies would allow for easier manufacturing and deployment of AVs throughout the U.S.

Doug Bloch (Teamsters) and John Samuelsen (TWU) also advocated for clearer federal guidelines, but mainly to prevent their union members who currently drive commercial and mass transit vehicles from being displaced by AVs too rapidly. Samuelsen, who represents 100,000 transportation operators and mechanics, emphasized that his members are the most at-risk for job loss without clear federal legislation. To avoid a repeat of the sudden elimination of jobs by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Samuelsen argued strongly that federal guidelines should hold Level 4 AV operators and manufacturers to a higher standard, while simultaneously elevating worker voices and reforming how USDOT approaches new regulations for AV technology. Bloch made sure to clarify that unions were not averse to innovation, but that the technology needs to be safe and retraining programs – like the one found in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) – should be ready to help workers who have lost their jobs due to automation.

On the other hand, Cathy Chase (Advocates) and Nico Larco (Urbanism) both stated that far too little is known about AVs, and federal policy should make sure that the industries are held to a high safety standard before the technology becomes widespread. Although Larco expressed hope that AV fleets would deflate the need for parking by up to 90 percent, thus freeing up cities for pedestrians, he also expressed fears that AVs could create sprawl while also pulling riders away from already-struggling transportation systems. Chase echoed Larco’s uncertainty by citing that in a national public opinion poll that roughly 80 percent of those surveyed showed concerns about sharing roads with automated vehicles, with that number climbing to 85 percent for automated trucks. Both Chase and Larco claimed that to safely roll out AVs, federal regulations must be put in place to mitigate their potential negative effects.

Finally, Martha Castex-Tatum (Houston) and Scott Marler (IDOT) advocated for the deployment of AVs in local pilot programs for data gathering and public trust building purposes. Castex-Tatus pointed out that since cities handle most aspects of public transportation, deploying Level 4 AVs in local projects can help regulators gain proper insights into how AVs should operate. In 2019, for instance, Houston METRO began an AV pilot at Tiger Walk, situated between two universities. Marler approached AVs from the state level, nothing that IDOT deployed AVs by defining a vision and a plan, extensively engaging stakeholders, crafting AV enabling legislation, and improving infrastructure. All of these developments, Marler claimed, helped with their own AV pilots that will provide important data for regulators, developers, and users.

Self-Driven Desires

Lawmakers asked plenty of questions relating to what AVs will need to operate safely and efficiently. DeFazio asked Beuse why keeping infrastructure in a state of good repair is necessary, even for AVs. Beuse pointed out that traditional infrastructure improvements, such as better road striping, sighting lines, and updated traffic technology, can help regular and AV road users alike.

Additionally, Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) asked Marler what sort of digital infrastructure would be necessary to help AVs operate effectively. Marler discussed how digital infrastructure, like high-definition mapping technology, helps AVs paint centerlines where none exist. Marler specifically mentioned how better digital infrastructure will help AVs operate in rural areas. At the moment, Iowa is investing some $323 million in better broadband projects in part to help AVs better navigate around the state. Due to the communication requirements of AVs, Marler consistently advocated for preserving the current 5.9 Ghz safety band to allow for the greatest connectivity possible between different types of technology.

Members also made it clear they wanted advice on how best to protect workers who may be threatened by increasing automation. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) explicitly asked Samuelsen what legislation should include to ensure worker protection. Samuelsen emphasized that technology can enhance current working practices, such as transit security. Samuelsen specifically mentioned uniformed transit operators protected him as a young bus rider in New York, explaining his opposition to eliminating operators.

When asked by Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) about the potential effects of worker headcounts by electrification and automation, Samuelsen pointed out that the transition from combustion-powered to electric buses will result in up to a 30 to 40 percent reduction in the number of mechanics needed to maintain the less complex electric buses. With that in mind, federal policy should make sure that workers are well informed about potential changes and in implementation, something that was not practiced under NAFTA.

Members also inquired about what new education, from skills to public knowledge, will be necessary to introduce AVs safely and efficiently. When asked by Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) how the AVIA is planning on educating people on its technology, Wolf quickly clarified one of their most important points: AVs are distinct and different from driver-assistance technology. The conflation between the two is dangerous in his mind because it makes people think their vehicles do not need personal input, and that mistake ultimately lowers consumer trust in the AV industry. Standardizing terminologies and regulations on the federal level, Wolf claimed, would help crack down on these emistakes. The distinction between driver-assistance and true AVs was particularly important to Wolf when questioned by Rep. Henry Johnson (D-GA), who expressed concerns over Tesla’s recent controversies regarding driver safety.

Johnson also asked about racial biases in machine learning, and how industry advocates plan to address it. Beuse claimed that vehicles need additional training to account for all variations in their environments, and that it is important for an AV to see how everything fits together.

Supporting Self-Driving

As the hearing came to a close, all four parties outlined their requests for upcoming federal legislation. Castex-Tatum and Marler advocated for more local and state AV pilot partnerships in large and smaller cities to gather more data and create better safety standards. Larco concurred, stating that AV deployment will affect communities differently and federal regulators should make sure that AV studies measure the cascading impacts of new technology.

Samuelsen and Bloch both reaffirmed their desire for union participation in the implementation of AVs across the U.S. Samuelsen stated that the impact of technology should be discussed well in advance, so workers are not blindsided as they have been in the past. Additionally, both expressed concerns that without strong federal protections, union members will see the number of quality jobs decrease as employers attempt to classify workers as independent contractors, rather than full-time employees.

Wolf outlined that any federal framework should make sure to enhance consumer and public trust in technology while also maximizing the deployment of AVs. Beuse also emphasized that federal regulations should allow for flexible approaches to AV deployment to address different uses, whether that be as freight or passenger delivery vehicles.

One particularly thorny issue that was almost entirely sidestepped during the hearing was disagreement over state and local liability laws. The federal government has been unable to pass legislation creating clear federal guidelines since at least 2017 due to liability concerns. Rep. Jake Auschincloss (D-MA) briefly mentioned the importance of including the property and casualty industry into negotiations, and Chase agreed with the sentiment. Beuse also mentioned that  Aurora’s current AV operations in Pennsylvania include collaboration with insurance companies to ensure smooth implementation and development.

Throughout the hearing, the numerous representatives and stakeholders made clear that with over 1,300 AVs currently operational and AV regulations on the books in 38 states, the time for clear federal guidelines on AV development is driving (autonomously) closer every day.

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