House Subcommittee Holds Hearing On Autonomous Vehicles

On February 11, the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce held a hearing to discuss the future of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in America. There are currently no existing safety standards or regulations that govern AVs. Overall, both committee members and witnesses from trade groups, including tech companies and consumer and vehicle safety groups, believe that eliminating regulatory barriers will help AVs; they argued the best thing that Congress can do is to enact legislation that will fix loopholes, promote innovation, and help retain America’s competitive edge in the global market. All believed that there needs to be an emphasis on safety at the beginning of the discussion.

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) led the hearing with other subcommittee members. Witnesses included Cathy Chase, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (AHAS); John Bozzella, President and CEO of Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI); Daniel Hinkle, State Affairs Counsel for American Association of Justice (AAJ); Mark Riccobono, President of National Federation of the Blind (NFB); Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of Consumer Technology Association (CTA); and Jeff Tumlin, Director of Transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

Rep. Schakowsky opened the hearing by discussing automotive regulation over the past few decades, noting that AVs will be at the forefront of a new stage. Key components of the hearing were safety, accessibility, cybersecurity, winning the AV global race, and passing legislation and regulation. Members referenced multiple times that in 2018, approximately 37,000 lives were lost in vehicular crashes and accidents and that about 94 percent of all traffic accidents are caused by human error. Members noted that AVs will remove this error, however, Cathy Chase from AHAS noted that humans will be making and designing the autonomous vehicles, so one human error could be replaced with another. Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) also stated that this technology is only as reliable as its human developers. Witness Bozella and others believed that by “supplementing or replacing the human driver with advanced sensors and other technologies, we can dramatically decrease the frequency and severity of [vehicle] crashes.”

The Committee unanimously passed the SELF DRIVE Act in 2017, which called for the safe development, regulation, and deployment of AVs. It provides the framework needed for legislation to add in details. The bill passed the House but has yet to appear before the Senate. 

Members, including Rep. Cathy Rodgers (R-Wash.), stressed the importance of winning the global AV race, especially against China. She stated that China is moving ahead and testing on our roads, stealing our tech and information, potentially spying on us and our surroundings. Witness Chase stated, “the thing is we’re not falling behind other countries in AV deployment, but we are falling behind in implementing safe AV policies.”

The hearing established that there is a clear need for safety measures and protocols. The federal government needs to standardize safety measures and regulations, for consumer and company ease, to mitigate confusion and so AVs will work from one state to another. States and local governments should work on traffic regulation. Any current regulation will need to be reworked and clarified for AVs. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have rules regarding AVs, which leaves a legislative gap across the country.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety believe that there must be minimum performance standards for foundational technology to provide safety measures for all. Almost everyone agreed the introduction of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles creates a risk. It was also noted that as society transitions to more autonomous vehicles, from Level 1 and 2 to Levels 4 and 5, it will create more mobility opportunities, but it will also take building blocks and challenge people as they must adjust to the transition. In the meantime, drivers must stay alert and engaged while in AVs.

Hinkle, representing the American Association of Justice, stated that the best way to protect Americans while retaining innovation is to enact regulation and legislation that maintains the traditional role of government to ensure safety on roads, and to implement consumer protections in the case of injury or property damage. Hinkle stated that “the difference between an automated vehicle and a human-driven vehicle is a promise. It is a promise from the manufacturer of that automated driving system that they will operate the vehicle safely on our roads. This promise is what gives cities and states and ultimately federal regulators the confidence to allow these vehicles on our roads and this promise is essential in convincing the public to trust that automated driving will be safe. The key question is whether our laws will hold these companies accountable for that promise.” It was important to AAJ that legislation provides three key things: that those who have been hurt by AVs can hold AV manufacturers accountable; that the public is not forced into arbitration; and AV manufacturers must follow the rules of the road and can be held publicly accountable for doing so.

Committee members and people with disabilities have stressed the importance of accessibility, including for the elderly. Mark Riccobono stated that AVs provide an unprecedented opportunity for blind individuals to join the driving class, creating more independence and economic opportunities. The group stressed the importance of accessibility as part of the discussion, development, manufacture, and legislative processes.

Witness Tumlin stressed the challenge of this technology on the roads. He wanted to see legislation that required companies to provide event data reports, which will collect data before and after a collision as well as any safety incident information and to have every incident involving an AV documented in a national database available to researchers and the public. This will help NHTSA develop safety standards and help determine if AVs are truly safer than human drivers.

Multiple attendees highlighted the imperfections of AVs. In Tempe, AZ, an AV could not identify a pedestrian if the person was not at a crosswalk; it failed to accurately classify her as a pedestrian, predict her path and avoid her. As a result, Elaine Herzberg was killed by an Uber test vehicle that had self-driving features. Witness Cathy Chase, from AHAS, testified in her opening statement that the technology is “not yet mature and proven,” noting crashes, injuries and deaths from rushed AV deployments. She stated, “the technology isn’t ready and neither are our roads.” Chase emphasized that the public is skeptical of AVs; a study reported that 85 percent of Americans are concerned with sharing roads with autonomous vehicles.

Current safety standards assume that humans are operating vehicles; if these vehicles do not comply they must apply for an exemption. There are certain features that autonomous vehicles do not need, such as steering wheel and pedals, however, the hearing did not address measures that should be taken if a human needs to override; for example, if a human needs to take over and operate a vehicle, a steering wheel and pedals might be useful in this endeavor. Nuro is an example of an AV without certain standard vehicle features, which received an exemption. Exemptions are granted when auto manufacturers prove that their vehicles are of comparable safety to traditional cars.

Rep. Robin Kelly (D-lll.) stressed the importance of cybersecurity concerns for AVs. She noted that bad actors could hack and commandeer vehicles.  Chase noted that a recent opinion poll showed that “three-quarters of respondents support government-issued cybersecurity rules.” Rep. Jerry McNerny (D-Calif.) also discussed the issue of cybersecurity and the importance of protecting vehicles at all levels. Witness Tumlin stated that for example, there could be a vulnerability at a traffic light, which could weaponize AVs and cause a disruption. He gave the example that if the 6,000 deployed AVs in San Francisco were to suddenly stop, it would cause a major disruption and traffic jam in San Francisco. The hearing did not discuss specifically desired measures to ensure cybersecurity.

Rep. Robert Latta (R-Ohio) asked if there is a need for a secure supply chain. Shapiro stated that Chinese technology is collecting American data and that this should be part of a larger national security discussion. It is evident based on previous Department of Interior rules that the federal government views China as a national security threat, especially when it comes to emerging technology.

Most at the hearing believed that more resources needed to be allocated to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), so the agency can effectively do its job and provide safety standards and rules to keep Americans safe with AV deployment.