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Lawmakers are showing renewed interest in regulating automated vehicles as traffic deaths spike and self-driving technology continues to quickly evolve.
Automated vehicles could help reduce crashes on roads, but regulators need to “hold industry accountable” on safety promises and give labor a seat at the table, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in opening remarks ahead of a Wednesday hearing on the technology. After legislation to regulate automated vehicles stalled several years ago on pushback from unions and trial lawyers, as well as safety concerns, lawmakers are examining its prospects and hearing from industry, labor, and safety advocates about next steps.
Data released Tuesday from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found an estimated 31,720 people died in car crashes in the first nine months of last year, a 12% jump from the same period in 2020 and the highest projected fatalities during that time frame since 2006. Top Democrats on the committee say AV standards need to address the risks.
“We have seen disastrous consequences when automation technology is deployed haphazardly,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), chair of the subcommittee that oversees highways and transit. “To maximize the road safety impact of AVs, we must ensure that these technologies are held to the highest possible safety standards.”
Several companies are working on autonomous vehicles and advanced driver systems. Tesla Inc. has come under particular scrutiny and NHTSA is investigating the company’s Autopilot system, which is a driver-assistance feature, after almost a dozen collisions at crash scenes involving first-responder vehicles
Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) tried to advance self-driving car bills in previous congresses but were unsuccessful, while Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) introduced legislation (H.R. 3711) in the House this year that hasn’t been considered.
DeFazio said labor needs to be involved in the conversation since truckers and transit operators share the road with AVs and still rely on human drivers. Norton said that eliminating the need for a driver could lead to “widespread job displacement if the needs of workers are not prioritized at the outset.”
Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy at the American Trucking Associations, wrote to committee leadership Tuesday that the federal government should take a leading role in setting policies that will help accelerate U.S. deployment of AV technologies in trucking.
The industry is urging the U.S. to ramp up its approach, pointing to the rising death toll on roads and China’s increased spending on developing this technology. Ariel Wolf, general counsel at the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, said companies and policymakers need to work together to establish a national framework for deployment.
“The simple fact is that AVs do not drive drunk, they do not text while driving, they do not fall asleep at the wheel, and they do not recklessly speed,” Wolf said in written testimony.
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