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Congress Releases Guidelines in Effort to Regulate Autonomous Vehicles

This week members of Congress released bipartisan legislative principles for self-driving vehicles that will guide any future laws.

During a June 14 hearing, members from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation spoke to their game-changing ability to provide a safer alternative to traditional driving.

And the safety of traditional driving is questionable; also during the hearing, called Paving the Way for Self-Driving Vehicles, the statistic that 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error or decision was referenced many times, as was the potential in automation to drastically reduce this figure.

To that end, senators John Thune, R-S.D., Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., codified a set of six legislative principles for future autonomous vehicle legislation to follow:

  • prioritize safety;
  • promote continued innovation and reduce existing roadblocks;
  • remain tech neutral;
  • reinforce separate federal and state roles;
  • strengthen cybersecurity; and
  • educate the public to encourage responsible adoption of self-driving vehicles. 
“The release of the principles and the hearing itself are a great step in the right direction,” Vinn White, former deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), who is now with Deloitte, told Government Technology. “This is moving faster than many of us have anticipated.”

To White, this release of principles seems to be a natural evolution of the process started under then-DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx. In 2016, the DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released guidance for highly autonomous vehicles, breaking down what the federal government is responsible for and what the states are responsible for when it comes to the new technology. The move to put out the non-binding guidance was “designed to set the framework” for the discussion that's now being held, White explained.

And while it may seem like it's hard to build bipartisan consensus on any issue in 2017, self-driving vehicle regulation is a rare opportunity to come together without overly politicizing the situation. However, it is not altogether surprising given the enormous benefits and how wide-ranging they are.

“While [senators] might have different interests, they’re all aligning on this front,” said White, adding that the current ecosystem is really a mosaic of how this technology can impact the transportation network we have. While there are pockets of self-driving research happening in Silicon Valley or freight research in the Midwest or connected vehicle pilots in other parts of the country, “it all starts to paint a picture of what the system as a whole looks like.”

Mark Dowd, who helped format the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge and is now a visiting scholar with the University of California, Berkeley, was also encouraged by the show of solidarity.

"It is great that there's a bipartisan effort to bring some clarity to the automated vehicle space," he said, noting that while he's encouraged by the action, he also wants to ensure that cities keep hold of their jurisdictions for the inevitable onset of autonomous vehicles. Understanding the need to avoid a “patchwork of regulations,” cities will be the de facto rollout test beds for this technology, so they need to have some oversight as to when and how AVs are demonstrated.

One of the most concerning outcomes for transportation planners is that if the rollout and deployment of autonomous vehicles is not properly thought out, several of the potential benefits of AVs could be negated. Take, for instance, if the personal ownership model persists and switches to self-driving cars, this could create significantly more vehicle-miles traveled, ultimately causing worse congestion. People could potentially send their car home rather than paying for expensive parking in an urban core.

This is a nightmare for people like Pete Gould, who worked for the DOT, Uber and founded a transportation consulting business called Shared Mobility Strategies. While applauding the action taken by the members of the committee, Gould said he is hesitant about the principle of tech neutrality. Favoring one company’s technology is obviously wrong, but he explained that there is a difference between favoring technologies and encouraging certain policy outcomes, such as a cleaner vehicle fleet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is helpful from a public policy standpoint to be putting your thumb on scale of a shared system,” he said, adding that he hopes with any future legislation, Congress feels comfortable with using certain levers of influence in order to achieve an outcome that makes sense. “There's a role to play there, and I don't think that they [legislators] need to stay completely neutral, and I don't know if they should.”

Legislators, he said, need to ensure that the rollout of AVs is woven into a broader mobility ecosystem of public transit and responsible roadway designs.

“We’ve seen broad agreement that a fundamental shift is driving a move away from personally owned, driver-driven vehicles toward a future mobility system centered on driverless vehicles and shared mobility,” White said. “We believe the dream of the future of mobility — on-demand travel that is faster, safer, cleaner and more efficient — may be possible sooner than many expect.”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.