The Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection, chaired by Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), held a hearing on Tuesday to continue exploring the potential of self-driving cars. The purpose of the hearing was to allow the members to learn more about the safety benefits of self-driving cars, the testing of these automated technologies, and the projected timeframe for deployment. The take-away theme of today’s hearing centered around the safety benefits that self-driving technology provides to society.
Safety benefits. In his opening remarks, Latta noted that in 2015, there were over 35,000 lives tragically lost on our nation’s roadways and that based on early estimates, traffic fatalities in 2016 were likely to be even higher. Latta added that, unfortunately, "we also know that human error accounts for over 90 percent of all traffic accidents." While these statistics were startling, Latta was encouraged by the emergence of automated vehicle technology and growing investments into fully self-driving vehicles, which promised to significantly reduce lives lost by decreasing traffic accidents and making roadways safer for all users.
At the start of the hearing, the statistics reinforcing the promise of automated vehicle technology, including its ability to enhance safety, convenience, and mobility for consumers were provided by each witness. Gill Pratt, the CEO of Toyota Research Institute, specifically talked about how autonomous vehicle technology is already improving vehicle safety by reducing room for human error. He relayed, "In 2015 alone, approximately 1.25 million people died globally in automobile crashes, including 35,092 people in the U.S." Continuing, he added, "Because more than 90% of crashes are caused by human error, autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to dramatically reduce these numbers."
Anders Karrberg, Vice President of Government Affairs at Volvo Car Group, added to previous points made on the safety potential of self-driving cars, stating, "VCC [Volvo Car Corporation] believes autonomous vehicles are an incredible opportunity to redesign the concept of personal mobility and to improve traffic safety. So it is critical that policymakers have a legislative framework ready, before the technology arrives on the market."
Testing needed. Latta also pointed out that because fully self-driving vehicles are intended to operate without the input or control of a human driver, flexible and unregimented testing will be essential to certifying the safety and reliability of the technology powering self-driving vehicles. He stated, "Robust vehicle testing is essential to the successful and safe deployment of self-driving vehicles. Testing will not only provide automakers and other entities with the data they need to make these vehicles as safe as possible, but it will help build consumer confidence in this technology, which is central to realizing the future benefits of self-driving vehicles."
Expanding on the process for deployment of self-driving vehicles, Michael F. Ableson, Vice President of Global Strategy for General Motors,discussed why testing was so important and the processes in place "to prove safety and inform policy making." He continued, "We believe deploying in such a deliberate and controlled way will help to ensure that our self-driving vehicles meet the same strict standards for safety and quality that we’ve been building into our traditional vehicles for generations."
Building on the excitement and concerns expressed by Latta, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), in his opening statement, pointed out that the benefits of self-driving cars do not stop at safety. The technology also can increase transportation access to underserved communities, expand labor productivity, improve mobility, reduce congestion, and drive new efficiencies and cost savings into businesses. But, Walden stressed, "the realization of these benefits must start with ensuring that the technology behind self-driving cars is safe and ready for consumer adoption." Although the subcommittee intended to encourage the deployment of this life-saving technology, Walden explained that a blank check would not be issued for testing and deployment anywhere across the country.
Witnesses also provided feedback on the challenges facing the auto industry as they strive to bring self-driving cars to the market. Joseph Okpaku, Vice President of Government Relations at Lyft, stated that, "the greatest potential obstacle [was] constrictive legislation and regulations." He goes on to say, "The worst possible scenario for the growth of autonomous vehicles is an inconsistent and conflicting patchwork of [s]tate, local, municipal, and county laws that will hamper efforts to bring AV technology to the market. This scenario is well on its way to becoming a reality."
In response, Walden assured the auto industry that the goal was to create a framework that would allow this technology to develop safely and for innovation to flourish without the heavy hand of government. According to Walden, "Overly prescriptive regulations on self-driving cars will stop the very thing we are trying to create: an accident-free transportation system that is safe and secure for all roadway users." However, Walden stressed that just as with any new innovation and developing technology, proper oversight was key.
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