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Congress Needs to Tighten Up AV Legislation (Opinion)

It’s essential that Congress find the right balance between promoting innovation and addressing legitimate safety issues.

(TNS) — Self-driving cars are the future. An innovation that is projected to be an $800 billion business by 2035 — double the size of the smartphone industry — is impossible to stop.

The present is another matter. Serious safety concerns demand a cautious approach. The story Nov. 30 about the Tesla Model S traveling down Highway 101 at 70 mph in driver-assist mode while its occupant was asleep behind the wheel, allegedly while under the influence of alcohol, makes that clear. Quick-thinking by highway patrol officers averted a potential disaster. This time. The next incident may not have such a good outcome.

California updated its autonomous vehicle regulations earlier this year and began issuing state permits in April for public road operation of cars without drivers. And Congress is considering a self-driving car bill — the AV START Act — that would override the mishmash of regulations currently in place in 36 states.

Regulating innovative technology has never been lawmakers’ strength. Very few have a background in science, much less tech expertise. The bill will die if it isn’t passed by the end of the year. But Congress must not be rushed. It must take the time to get AV START right, even if that means starting over again in 2019.

The issue is too important and has too many long-term repercussions to do otherwise. It’s essential that Congress find the right balance between promoting innovation and addressing legitimate safety issues.

California’s Dianne Feinstein is among those in the Senate expressing dissatisfaction with the language of the current bill. Consumer groups are adamant that Congress needs to do more to secure driverless cars from hacking. They’re right. Congress must also toughen standards for what self-driving cars must recognize, including pedestrians, motorcycles and bicycles, and establish standards for how self-driving cars interact with people — especially children.

Beyond performance issues, transparency and oversight shortcomings need to be addressed. At a minimum, manufacturers and states should be required to report accidents involving self-driving cars and vehicles with “driver-assist” modes.The federal government needs to establish a database that informs the public on accident rates and technology performance issues.

The database could work to automakers’ advantage if the results demonstrate that self-driving cars and vehicles with driver-assist capability are significantly safer than cars with drivers who often ignore basic safety rules. Human error is a serious issue, especially for elderly, teen and alcohol-impaired drivers. In 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic accidents in the United States. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that self-driving cars could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 94 percent. But that assumes that the technology works at optimal level.

Surveys continue to show that nearly half of all Americans are wary of the safety of driverless vehicles. Manufacturers, consumer advocates and lawmakers should address that legitimate concern so the industry can reach its full potential.

©2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.