Senate Commerce Convenes Field Hearing at Washington Auto Show

January 26, 2018

On January 24, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a field hearing at the Washington Auto Show to discuss emerging technologies in the automotive industry, with a particular focus on automated vehicles (AVs).

The hearing largely revolved around AV START (S. 1885), which was co-authored by Senate Commerce chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI). As ETW reported today, the bill is once again moving forward as Thune and Peters continue to work with the handful of Democrats who expressed concerns about the safety, cybersecurity, and data privacy implications of AVs.

The committee called on four witnesses, including representatives of companies working on AV technology and a leading academic in emerging automotive technology:

  • Luke Schneider, President, Audi Mobility U.S. (testimony)
  • Dr. Randy Avent, President, Florida Polytechnic University (written testimony | oral testimony)
  • Tim Kentley-Klay, CEO and Co-Founder, Zoox, Inc. (testimony)
  • Mike Mansuetti, President, Robert Bosch North America, Robert Bosch LLC (testimony)

The hearing was somewhat of a public debut for Kentley-Klay, the CEO and co-founder of Zoox. Last April, the secretive AV company hired Mark Rosekind, the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as its chief safety innovation offer.

Kentley-Klay, an Australian, founded Zoox after moving to the U.S. more than three years ago. As opposed to automakers, which have largely focused on the gradual implementation of AV technology in successive models, Zoox is building fully autonomous vehicles that will not be driven by humans.

“Beyond this, because we believe that the full realization of this technology is not retrofitted cars, we are also creating a vehicle from the ground-up—without traditional controls—that’s purpose-built for the needs of our cities today and tomorrow,” Kentley-Klay said in his testimony.

However, this approach presents major regulatory barriers. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) currently require that all vehicles are equipped with controls for human drivers, such as steering wheels and brake pedals. While manufacturers can apply for exemptions to these standards in order to test new designs, they must be able to demonstrate that their vehicles are at least as safe as vehicles that comply with FMVSS – but there is not yet a standard process around how this should be done.

Moreover, manufacturers are limited to only 2,500 exempted vehicles per year – which would hamper any attempt to scale up a company like Zoox.

For this reason, AV START and the House’s SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388) are both written to modify the FMVSS exemption process. Each would increase the existing FMVSS exemption caps to 80,000 in AV START or 100,000 in SELF DRIVE. They would also instruct USDOT to establish new processes by which AV developers can obtain FMVSS exemptions.

Throughout the hearing, Kentley-Klay and the other panelists voiced support for AV START – citing the potential of AVs to significantly improve the nation’s roadways.

“Innovation will continue to be our legacy, and our responsibility. But we won’t be innovating just to sell more cars,” said Schneider. “[Audi will] be innovating to reduce fatalities, ease congestion, lessen emissions, and improve mobility for all.”

Schneider specifically drilled into the opportunity for AVs to enhance mobility for people with disabilities and underserved communities. He noted that 16 million Americans currently live in areas with limited or nonexistent transportation services, and 6 million people with disabilities have difficulty accessing transportation – separating them from work, school, and medical appointments.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) agreed, explaining the mobility challenges faced by her 29-year-old son with cerebral palsy. She told witnesses that there is a need to learn from – and work with – the disability community to solve not just the technological challenges of driving a vehicle, but the design challenges for people with disabilities who would benefit from AVs (e.g., accommodating wheelchairs).

On the topic of equity, Sen. Dean Heller (D-NV) noted that over 50 percent of the fatal crashes in his home state (and nationwide) occurred in rural areas, even though only 20 percent of the population is rural. Since most of the attention to AVs has focused on their uses in urban areas up to this point, Heller asked whether any of the companies present had plans to deploy AVs in rural areas.

Kentley-Klay indicated that Zoox has tested its AVs in a variety of environments, and said that there is “a need to introduce them in all parts of America.”


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