Senate Committee Examines Effects of Autonomous Technologies on Infrastructure

June 14, 2018

On Wednesday, the full Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing entitled, “Innovation and America’s Infrastructure: Examining the Effects of Emerging Autonomous Technologies on America’s Roads and Bridges.”

The hearing, led by committee chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), was called to examine the emergence of autonomous technologies to determine the effects on America’s roads and bridges looking forward.  The hearing included a panel featuring:

  • William Panos, Director, Wyoming Department of Transportation
  • Shailen Bhatt, President and CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America
  • Zachary Doerzaph, Director, Center for Advanced Automotive Research
  • Polly Trottenberg, Commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation
  • Shaun Kildare, Director of research, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

While focusing primarily on infrastructure and the future of autonomous vehicles, the hearing mainly served as a platform for the panelists to air their hopes and concerns regarding the ever-growing future of autonomous vehicles (AVs).  The hearing also explored present issues with road and bridge infrastructure in the United States. Along with infrastructure issues, recent incidents such as the fatal Uber crash in Arizona in March of this year and the fatal Tesla crash in California were of high concern.

Senator Barrasso recalled that last month the committee unanimously passed bipartisan legislation to improve America’s water infrastructure and that they are now working to pass the bill (the America’s Water Infrastructure Act) on the Senate floor. He said he believes this will lead to bipartisan success in future action on America’s surface transportation infrastructure, with a focus on roads and bridges.

Panos stated clearly that along with the development and furthering of technology in autonomous vehicles, safety is of the utmost importance to himself and WYDOT. The importance of safety was echoed throughout the panel. This also brought along related concerns including cyber security threats that come with these emerging transportation technologies. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) reiterated this and used the opportunity to promote his bill, the SPY CAR Act, directing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to establish federal standards to protect consumers from security and privacy threats to motor vehicles.

Trottenberg made an prescient point pertaining to the data of hybrid autonomous vehicles, stating that releasing vehicle data will allow for the creation of a safety culture surrounding hybrid AVs and ensure they are programmed to obey all state and local traffic laws. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) questioned Trottenberg about this, agreeing that it is vital to the public to ensure safety and compatibility of AVs. The sharing of this information would allow research to further advance on safety operations and appropriate standards for this new infrastructure and vehicle technology.

The assembled panel covered a long list of topics, but safety never strayed too far from discussion. It was understandably a significant point, considering around 37,461 traffic fatalities occurred in 2016, according to Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). Kildare discussed safety once again when mentioning America’s infrastructure and how it received a grade of D from the American Society of Civil Engineers and reported that nearly 1 in 11 of the country’s 615,000 bridges is structurally deficient. This is further evidence that substantial investments will be needed to ensure AVs can operate safely and bring American infrastructure to where it should be.

Booker stated that it was estimated that it would take $142 billion of capital investment annually for the next 20 years to get infrastructure conditions to where they should be to dramatically reduce the number of fatalities. He went on: “We seem to have this resignation that this is normal, and it should not be. We need to take more conviction in stopping and fixing these fatalities. Emerging technology is hopeful to me, the potential to save lives along with other benefits clearly.”

Focused on companies such as Uber and Tesla, Kildare gave a few relevant examples of issues with AVs and the testing of them thus far. Much of the panel showed concern regarding AV testing, and the Uber fatality in Arizona and a similar incident with Tesla in California lent credence to common worries about AVs and potential malfunctions.

In addition to safety, congestion was also a priority for the panel, particularly in places like New York, where the population is around 8.6 million people and constantly growing. AVs coupled with evolving smart infrastructure could provide the solution to the issue of congestion. Trottenberg cautioned that it will only be effective in mitigating congestion if the federal government involves cities in the policy making of AVs.

At the federal level, Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) mentioned that it is not easy to determine what needs to be done or to prioritize tasks in line with smart transportation infrastructure. Many on the panel agreed that there needs to be a subdivision within the Highway Trust Fund dedicated to the advancements of these technological capabilities. Not only would this subsection help to deploy these emerging technologies more widely, it would also leverage existing technology investments and enhance new technological investments.

Finally, Senator Carper asked whether AVs will help or actually worsen the problems of fuel emissions, consumption, and congestion. The panel seemed to be unanimous in saying more research must be done on all of these topics, and that more funding is needed to do that. It was also made clear that there needs to be more communication between NHTSA and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and all others involved to reach appropriate regulation and consensus.

Watch the recording of the hearing and read the witnesses’ written testimony here.

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