A group of automotive safety advocates, academics and former government officials convened via phone this week to lobby against the passage of the AV START Act , Congress’ attempt to provide guidance to the autonomous vehicle industry.
The act, safety advocates claimed on Monday, would actually deregulate the nascent industry. Aside from allowing auto manufacturers to sell autonomous vehicles that don’t meet minimum cybersecurity or “vision-test” standards, stakeholders lamented the legislation’s potential preemption of state- and local-level AV regulation — effectively legalizing the next generation of cars in localities that haven’t prepared any infrastructure for their arrival.
The advocates outlined a laundry list of issues surrounding the bill, which is currently awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. The bill’s pending status can be attributed to one of the key concerns of stakeholders — a letter signed by 70 stakeholders sent to the U.S. Senate on July 16 urged lawmakers not to “attach” the AV Start Act to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which is expected to hit the senate floor in the coming weeks.
Doing so, said Dr. Jeanna Matthews, an associate computer science professor at Clarkson University, would sidestep the necessary debate for a potentially revolutionary technology.
“Attaching the AV START Act to a must-pass FAA bill is an egregious maneuver to avoid common sense investments in public safety, government oversight and industry accountability. It would be a blank check to an industry that is not prepared to police itself. Computer security researchers, like me, know how easy it is to overestimate your company’s engineering abilities and underestimate both software flaws and the ability of attackers in a rush to market.”
The letter’s authors make several suggestions — maintaining state and local regulative authority, compelling all AV’s to capture and immediately report detailed crash data and the creation of a publicly accessible database to provide consumers information about potentially unregulated AVs.
“One of the best ways to educate consumers about this new technology is to make safety information about driverless cars easily available online,” said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s no surprise that the vast majority of consumers want this information. And it is especially important with AVs because there are currently no standards set by the U.S. Department of Transportation that make it clear what AV features can and cannot do. This database must also let consumer know which AVs are exempt from federal safety standards.”
The stakeholders, led by Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, also note the National Transportation Safety Board — the leading investigative body for transportation accidents, including those involving AVs — has several investigations pending into fatal crashes. A recent Opinion Research Corporation poll revealed 84 percent of Americans want to wait until those tests are completed before seeing Congress act.
Other stakeholders go even further to argue that the legislation shouldn’t exist, and that autonomous vehicle testing in its current state is conducive enough to both innovation and safety.
“If AV START did not pass until next Congress, or never passed at all, driverless car testing could continue across the United States indefinitely,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.
Levine and his colleagues cited California as the largest single AV-testing ground in the world right now, and pointed to the millions of miles companies like Waymo and Uber have traveled in their test cars as reason not to rush the legislation.
“Waymo has just passed the 8 million-mile mark in its testing of level 3 AVs on public roads, and their competitors are racing to catch up — all despite the absence of the AV START Act,” he said. “Alternatively, what AV START does is allow manufacturers not only to test but sell AVs to consumers in states where no testing has been done, where local authorities have not approved such activity, and local residents do not need to even be notified it is happening.”