U.S. government, consumer groups, automakers continue to wrestle with AV legislation
Autonomous vehicles (AVs) were on the docket for the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce on Tuesday, February 11th, following the introduction of two electric vehicle (EV) acts last week, the Electric Vehicle Freedom Act by Representatives Andy Levin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Electric Vehicle for Underserved Communities Act by Representative Yvette Clark. Taken separately, the three don't have much to do with one another, but together they highlight a continued question within the U.S.: What, if anything, should be the role of the U.S. government in new mobility?
The U.S. government has had multiple meetings and publications on the subject of new mobility in the past few months, including the introduction of "Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies: Automated Vehicles 4.0" (AV 4.0) in January, which was announced at CES.
A recurring theme in all of them made its way to the title in AV 4.0, "Ensuring American Leadership." There's a lot of concern that inaction on the part of the U.S. government to lay down a set of guiding principles or legislation will allow other regions to beat the U.S. to the punch with their own rules. This would mean that the global auto industry might then take up that other region's guidance, and relegate the U.S. a follower. The fears are complicated, but essentially boil down to: cede leadership to Europe and its strong consumer protections, or cede leadership to China and its relaxed (or nonexistent) attitude toward consumer protections.
"The U.S. is not behind other countries in allowing them to go to market," said Catherine Chase, President of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, about AVs. "But we are behind in establishing comprehensive safeguards to ensure that this progress happens without jeopardizing or diminishing public safety."
Interestingly, each witness who presented to the committee on Tuesday was in favor of AV guidance at the federal level in some way. Witnesses before the committee ranged from auto industry representatives to consumer representatives to municipality representatives. The only difference within the testimony of each witness was with regard to the level of involvement that should happen at the federal level.
"It is important to recognize that successful testing and deployment of AVs rests on a robust federal safety agency, increased public awareness and education, and coordination between federal, state and local governments," said John Bozzella, President and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. "The DOT must retain its safety and enforcement authorities over each level of automation, and AV developers must work to increase public awareness which builds trust in the technology. Congress has an important role: to help provide the legislative and regulatory landscape that can enable the full safety, environmental, social and economic benefits of AVs."
One of the big takeaways was with regard to the data before and after a crash.
"Congress should require companies to include event data recorders in autonomous vehicles that preserve all information from sensors before a collision," said Jeffrey Tumlin, Director of Transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. "This information will help us understand what kinds of circumstances cause collisions for these vehicles—what challenges their capabilities.
"Second, Congress should ensure that every safety incident involving an autonomous vehicle is documented in a national database that is available to researchers and the public," he continued. "A national database will ensure we have tools to measure whether these vehicles actually are driving more safely than humans. These two steps will help build a foundation for assessing when the industry is ready to scale up production and increase the number of autonomous vehicles on our nation’s roadways."
The proceedings of the past few weeks, regarding both AVs and EVs, also shed light on a less reported benefit to AVs: mobility equity. The legislation introduced by Representative Clarke last week is clearly meant to address inequity for low-income communities and communities of color. The proceedings on Tuesday also included a witness from the President of the National Federation of the Blind, Mark Riccobono.
"Blind Americans are enthusiastic about the prospect of autonomous vehicles," said Riccobono. "By potentially enhancing our independence by providing reliable transportation that we can access whenever we need it, just as other Americans are currently able to do, autonomous vehicles would also improve our productivity, economic outcomes, and community engagement. It is important to recognize, however, that none of these benefits will be actualized without a clear and forward-thinking approach to the autonomous vehicle issue at the federal level, which includes ensuring full and equal access for everyone."
No one is in disagreement about the potential benefits AVs have for people. Although there is still some questions about what form federal oversight will take, it's clear that it will happen. However, the bigger question of when still remains.