Senate Committee Looks at Federal Roles in AV Safety

On Wednesday, November 20, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on the safety of highly automated vehicles. Witnesses were:

Robert Sumwalt, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Joel Szabat, Acting Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)
James Owens, Acting Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), U.S. Department of Transportation

Many committee members emphasized the nearly 40,000 fatalities on US roads annually, with 94% of crashes attributed by NHTSA to “human error.” Members and witnesses agreed that automated vehicles have the potential to makes roads safer. They all brought up the need to assure the safety of all users including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, rural residents, and people with disabilities. But the hearing mostly focused on what steps the federal government can take to facilitate safe testing and implementation of automated vehicles, including the roles for different agencies and the Congress.

Role of NTSB
The NTSB has no policy-making authority. The agency is involved in automated vehicle safety through their review of crashes, such as their recently released review of the 2018 fatal Uber AV crash and preliminary report of the 2018 Tesla “autopilot”crash. Their investigations can lead to recommendations, and the investigation of the March 2018 Uber crash resulted in recommendations for Uber, the State of Arizona, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and NHTSA. (Ed. Note: Per 49 U.S.C. §1135, DOT has to respond to NTSB recommendations in writing is not required to implement them. Many of the refusals relate to cost – NTSB is not required to perform benefit-cost analysis on its recommendations, but federal agencies are required to perform benefit-cost analysis of safety regulations.) At the hearing, Sumwalt emphasized the NTSB’s open recommendation for NHTSA (H-17-38) to mandate submittals of the voluntary safety self-assessments (VSSAs) and to evaluate and create an approval process for those documents.

Role of DOT
The VSSAs are currently listed as voluntary in the most recent USDOT automated vehicle guidance, Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0, which Szabat said will be updated at some point. Multiple committee members noted that of the close to 80 developers testing automated vehicles on public roads, only 17 have submitted a VSSA. Not only have a small proportion of companies submitted this safety document to NHTSA, but the documents do not seem to be widely used. For example, Committee members and witnesses incorrectly agreed in the hearing that Uber had not submitted a VSSA, despite the fact that they submitted the document and an accompanying independent review of safety at Uber in November, 2018.

Beyond the NHTSA guidance, Szabat also discussed funding opportunities awarded by USDOT for automated driving system (ADS) testing and development. The recently-announced ADS grants awarded $60 million with a focus on safe demonstration of ADS technologies. Szabat also noted that the forthcoming Mobility for All funding will include projects with ADS elements.

Role of NHTSA
NHTSA regulates the manufacture of vehicles to ensure their safe performance on public roads. They develop Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and can provide exemptions from them, up to 2,500 vehicles annually per manufacturer. Owens testified that NHTSA will establish new safety standards when ADS technologies have been proven and tested, and emphasized communication with industry partners and the need to proceed slowly so as not to stifle innovation. Despite NTSB’s recommendation that NHTSA should develop standards sooner rather than later, Owens assured that Committee that NHTSA is not ready to set new standards but that the agency will recall vehicles if they deem any aspect, including the software, unsafe.

Committee members pressed Owens on recent Tesla crashes in vehicles with ADS technology called “Autopilot” engaged, and noted that NHTSA has not yet acted to recall vehicles or to create new regulations regarding consumer education or naming conventions. NHTSA encourages developers to make consumers aware of the limitations of the technology, but it remained unclear through what actions. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) also expressed concern that NHTSA does not require automakers to disclose cybersecurity risks to the general public, though they do to their shareholders.

To date, no AV developers have received FMVSS exemptions from NHTSA. Owens stated that NHTSA is trying to streamline the FMVSS exemption process to shorten the timeline, and recommended future legislation to increase the number of exempt vehicles allowed per manufacturer to more than 2500 vehicles.

Role of Congress
Proposed federal legislation would establish a framework for regulation from agencies such as NHTSA and USDOT and preempt state legislation around AVs in some areas that have traditionally been federal responsibilities. The Senate introduced an AV bill in 2017, the AV START Act, which passed through the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee but didn’t get time on the Senate floor due to issues not covered in this hearing such as liability. Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Gary Peters (D-MI) taking point on the committee to draft new legislation and staff have begun to draft a few of the less-controversial sections (Ed. Note: no Senator has yet to endorse any of the staff-drafted sections). Peters stated the need for AV legislation to protect public safety and enhance global economic competitiveness. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) added a goal of expanding and improving mobility for the disability community.

The Committee, on a bipartisan basis, seemed in agreement that legislation creating a clear federal regulatory framework is necessary to promote safety on roads while unleashing the benefits of automated technologies and that flexibility can allow for new technologies to continue to emerge and develop.

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