Senate Commerce Reviews Autonomous Vehicle Priorities

June 16, 2017

After months of deliberation and over 150 meetings with stakeholders, the Senate Commerce Committee is edging closer to introducing legislation to foster automated vehicle (AV) development.

On June 13, Chairman John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) announced a set of bipartisan principles that the committee will use in crafting AV legislation. The announcement came a day before Senate Commerce held a full committee hearing titled Paving the Way for Self-Driving Vehicles.

“These principles underscore our commitment to prioritizing safety, fixing outdated rules, and clarifying the role of federal and state governments,” Thune said in a written statement.

On the other side of the Hill, the majority staff of the House Energy & Commerce Committee (E&C) is also making progress on legislative proposals for AVs. The Senate Commerce principles and internal documents from House E&C found that both chambers are closely aligned in their legislative efforts. (Ed. Note: ETW’s comparative analysis of the House and Senate initiatives can be found here.)

The Senate Commerce’s six principles were released a day before the full Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing to discuss the challenges around developing AV regulations with four industry experts:

  • Mr. Mitch Bainwol, President and Chief Executive Officer, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (testimony)
  • Mr. Rob Csongor, Vice President and General Manager of Automotive Business, NVIDIA Corporation (testimony)
  • Mr. John Maddox, President and Chief Executive Officer, American Center for Mobility, Ypsilanti, Michigan (testimony)
  • Ms. Colleen Sheehey-Church, National President, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) (testimony)

By and large, committee members showed tremendous enthusiasm for the benefits of AV technology – and especially its potential to reduce or eliminate the 35,000 annual traffic fatalities. This was reinforced in the testimony of Sheehey-Church from MADD, who lost her 18-year old son to a collision involving an intoxicated driver. She called AVs as a cure for the preventable tragedy of traffic deaths.

“In terms of self-driving, I’m looking at [vehicle automation levels] 4 and 5 as being that vaccine over time,” she said.

But the process by which the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will certify the safety of AV technology remains a major question. Currently, the federal government requires that vehicles sold in the U.S. comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), a set of prescriptive standards for vehicle design and performance that are mostly focused on physical components rather than software.

“Current federal motor vehicle safety standards do not address automated technologies, and in some cases directly conflict with them.  We are looking for ways to address these conflicts in dated rules without weakening the important vehicle safety protections they provide,” said Thune.

Regulating AV technology is an entirely different beast, as they rely on a combination of software, sensors, and traditional vehicle components that must all operate in lockstep. To complicate matters further, AV developers will need their AVs to drive millions of miles to demonstrate that they can operate safely and avoid collisions in even the most complex and difficult situations.

There is not yet a consensus on a process by which NHTSA should regulate AV safety, let alone whether it will be extremely expensive and time-consuming or optimized to be cheap and expedient. In fact, it might simply be too early to establish a process – truly autonomous vehicles (at SAE automation levels 4 and 5) still do not exist, and will likely not be available for a number of years.

“It is crucial that AV testing and development programs include three key complementary and fully integrated tools,” Maddox stated in his written testimony: testing on controlled tracks that simulate a variety of environments, real-world testing on public roads, and computer simulations that can rapidly test AV software’s reaction to any situation.

Until is a consensus is reached on AV testing, lawmakers in both the House and Senate are considering the stopgap measure of raising the cap on FMVSS exemptions from 2,500 vehicles to 100,000.

Bainwol indicated that an increased cap would allow AV developers to test and deploy vehicles that do not comply with FMVSS that were written with humans in mind (e.g., mandating that all motor vehicles include steering wheels, pedals, and mirrors).

Ultimately this will provide AV developers with the opportunity to place more AVs on public roads and gain valuable insights into how they will operate in real-world conditions. At the same time, NHTSA will be able to design a method for testing AV safety and eventually establish FMVSS for AV design and performance.

To begin this process, Maddox recommended developing voluntary standards that could then be written into FMVSS. “[Every tech-related FMVSS] was established through voluntary standards first,” he said.

While consumer acceptance is important for the adoption of AVs, people with limited mobility will enjoy the greatest benefits through a concerted effort on behalf of both the public and private sector. Members of both parties emphasized this point throughout the hearing, citing opportunities to enhance mobility for people with disabilities, seniors, and underserved communities.

“Offering new means of accessible transportation, including for our nation’s seniors, and lessening congestion will improve productivity and efficiency in all of our lives,” Thune noted in his opening remarks.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) reiterated the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities are considered throughout the process of AV development and deployment. She proceeded to ask the panel how the industry and government could ensure that people with limited mobility are part of the conversation around AVs.

Maddox stated that gathering input from people with disabilities now is “critical” in order to avoid significant accessibility issues similar to those that the disability community currently faces.

“Demonstration programs really are key… that will provide an opportunity for folks who don’t have equitable [mobility access],” he said.



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