Safety Groups Ask Senate to Apply Brakes on Autonomous-Vehicle Bill
Findings from ongoing crash investigations could douse enthusiasm.
By Pete Bigelow, CAR AND DRIVER
May 7, 2018
A coalition of safety advocates, transportation officials, and urban planners are urging that the U.S. Senate apply the brakes to pending legislation that aims to accelerate the widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles.
There were more than 40 signatories to a letter sent to congressional leaders last week asking them to hold off on the legislation until more information emerges from ongoing federal safety investigations into three recent crashes involving autonomous technology.
With Congress back in session this week after a hiatus, members of the coalition fear the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act could be attached to another bill related to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and not receive much scrutiny.
“While we are hopeful that in the future driverless cars may result in significant reductions in motor-vehicle crashes, deaths, and injuries, we are very concerned that provisions in the bill put others sharing the road with AVs at unnecessary and unacceptable risk,” the letter said.
Bill Would Consolidate Power at Federal Level
The AV START Act would pave the way for the deployment of potentially tens of thousands of automated vehicles on public roads across the United States by exempting them from federal motor-vehicle safety standards. Introduced by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and co-sponsored by both Michigan senators, among others, the bill has garnered broad bipartisan support.
Provisions of the bill would consolidate the power to regulate these vehicles with the federal government, limiting the ability of individual states to make their own laws and regulations. At the same time, the bill would prevent the Department of Transportation from promulgating regulations regarding data ownership or access to data that streams from these vehicles until a to-be-established committee could make eventual policy recommendations.
Restricting access to data could make the work of crash investigators more difficult, which is one reason the letter writers want the Senate to allow the National Transportation Safety Board to complete an ongoing investigation into a fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, in which an SUV equipped with Uber’s self-driving technology struck and killed a pedestrian who was pushing a bicycle across a multi-lane street.
The NTSB also is probing the November 2017 crash of a Navya autonomous shuttle on its first day of operation in Las Vegas, and a deadly March 2018 crash in California involving a Tesla Model S using its Autopilot advanced driving-assist feature in the Bay Area.
“Attempts to advance the bill and bypass the legislative process, especially before having crucial information from the NTSB, would be reckless at best and deadly at worst,” said John Simpson, privacy director for Consumer Watchdog, a California nonprofit that has been closely tracking the progress of self-driving technology and its testing on public roads.
Simpson was among those who signed the letter. Others include Joan Claybrook and David Friedman, two former administrators of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A wide-ranging set of groups are represented, including the League of American Bicyclists, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Center for Auto Safety, and the Vision Zero Network.
In the letter, the groups ask Congress to consider amending the AV START Act, Senate Bill 1885, to include provisions that call for the development of a “vision test” for driverless cars and to ensure that the vehicles include cybersecurity and electronic systems protections. Further, they ask for access to data that could serve crash investigators and a reduction in the size and scope of the list of vehicles exempted from federal safety standards.
For vehicles in which humans retain a role in the driving process, the groups want requirements set to address the handoff between vehicle systems and human drivers. But most of all, they want the Senate to delay taking any action on the bill until the NTSB wraps up its investigations and there’s time to consider the findings.
“It is essential that the legislation be given the opportunity for discussion, debate, and transparent consideration before the Senate votes,” the letter states. “Considering predictions by numerous auto and tech industry executives state that it will be likely many years until AVs are rolled out, it would be prudent to deliberate in legislating our nation’s AV policy and not rush through the AV START Act.”