WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the Congressional Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade examined the issue of self-driving vehicles. Members of the Committee used the hearing to explore the potential impact of automated vehicles on the nation’s roadways. Chairman Michael Burgess (R-TX) who chairs the Committee stated in his opening remarks that holding the hearing would allow Congress to better understand the safety and economic opportunities these vehicles present. The hearing was also used as a forum to discuss the Department of Transportation’s recently issued guidance on automated vehicles, which is currently under review.
Witnesses at the hearing spoke about the many positive attributes that self-driving vehicles hold including the future potential to eliminate human error from car crashes thus reducing the overall crash statistics in the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Mark Rosekind was quick to point out that overall crash rates in 2016 were likely to increase by 10% and that typically, 94% of these are due to human error. There was hope by many on the Committee that this figure could be greatly reduced or eliminated with the eventual emergence of fully automated vehicles; still expected to be some years away.
However, detractors and safety advocates who also spoke as expert witnesses cautioned Congress and NHTSA not to rush forward with attempts to get fully automated vehicles on the road quickly. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) agreed, saying that while autonomous vehicles had the potential to be great for safety, they also had the potential to be a disaster. The outcome of which greatly depended on how these vehicles are regulated and guaranteed safe, she added.
Another area that was of focus during the hearing was the role of federal versus state authorities when it comes to regulating self-driving vehicles. Administrator Rosekind emphasized the language in the recently issued guidance which discouraged states from advancing on regulating these types of vehicles in a manner inconsistent with DoT and instead, encouraged states to focus on their role of licensing and liability. Members of Congress were quick to point out that a number of states including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and California were already making moves to attempt to regulate testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles despite NHTSA strongly discouraging this.
Regarding the issue of liability, there was wide-spread recognition that this is largely an area of the ‘unknown.’ NHTSA’s reaction to the concern over responsibility in crashes involving autonomous vehicles resulted in a recommendation that a Commission should be established to examine this issue specifically and work through some of the questions surrounding liability. The Commission would likely include a number of stakeholders including representatives from various State Departments of Motor Vehicles as well as state authorities.
NHTSA Solicits Feedback
Though not directly related, last week NHTSA held its first public workshop on the issue of automated vehicles, soliciting input from the public on the guidance document. At the beginning of the public meeting, NHTSA expressed its desire to continue with a series of meetings focused on some of the proactive approaches to regulating self-driving vehicles outlined in the guidance. For NHTSA, who was in ‘listen only’ mode, the forum allowed them to hear directly from manufacturers of automated vehicles, insurance representatives, public safety groups and other advocates, such as the Motorcycle Riders Foundation who submitted written comments. The feedback centered around challenges with the emergence of these vehicles, possible improvements to the guidance, as well as served as an opportunity to seek clarification on the framework laid out by NHSTA.
Generally speaking, similar to the Congressional hearing, automakers and manufacturers of autonomous vehicles encouraged NHSTA to move forward, clearing any obstacles to getting these vehicles on the road and cautioned NHTSA to not do anything that would delay technology development. Contrarily, public safety advocates like “Consumer Watchdog” urged caution and their comments argued for NHTSA to slow down and ensure robust and rigorous enforceable regulations surrounding these vehicles including performance standards and a premarket approval process.
As the issue of autonomous vehicles moves forward, the lines in the sand are beginning to be drawn between automakers and safety groups. It’s clear that government authorities like the Committee and NHSTA will be pulled in different directions as to how to grapple with this area of uncharted territory. The MRF has and will continue to remain vigilant offering suggestions for improvements ensuring that motorcycle safety is a priority as the government continues to grapple with how to deal with these types of vehicles.