Highways and Transit hearing discusses highs and lows of automation

February 2, 2022

Mark Schremmer


A congressional hearing on automated vehicles discussed the technology’s potential benefits while also acknowledging the many hurdles.

The U.S. House of Representatives Highways and Transit subcommittee hosted the hearing “The Road Ahead for Automated Vehicles” on Wednesday, Feb. 2. The hearing discussed the possible effects automated vehicle deployment – including automated trucks and buses – would have on mobility, infrastructure, safety, workforce and other economic and societal implications.

One day removed from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s announcement that fatality crashes increased significantly in 2021, many lawmakers pointed to automation as a way to lessen that number. However, the potential dangers and the need for regulations aimed at protecting the workforce and ensuring safety were also stressed.

“Automated vehicles offer the opportunity to not only transform the automotive, trucking and transit industries, but it also will transform the nation as a whole and solve many of the challenges we face,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, ranking member on the Highways and Transit subcommittee. “According to the Department of Transportation, 94% of serious crashes are due to driver error. Because AVs are expected to anticipate dangers and mitigate or remove human error from the chain of events that lead to a crash, AV technology would increase safety and save lives.”

Davis, R-Ill., however, did not ignore how a move to automated vehicles could drastically change the workforce, including truck drivers.

“While these benefits are compelling, we must recognize the potential impacts on AV technology and what they could have on our workforce,” Davis said. “We need to implement pro-worker policies. Because AV deployment could lead to fewer professional driving jobs, we need to incorporate employee development and training programs to upscale our workforce so that they can take advantage of new jobs that AV technology will create.”

Several other committee members, including Rep. Mike Bost, lead sponsor of the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act, also addressed workforce issues and the value of human drivers.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said that the advancement of automated vehicles requires a lot of regulatory responsibility.

“It’s a tremendous challenge to regulators,” DeFazio said. “It shouldn’t be done state by state. We need some reasonable guidelines federally, and we have to get it right.”

He cited an article from The Washington Post discussing “phantom braking” reports involving Teslas.

“There are potential downsides to this technology,” DeFazio said.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, testified that the government should not allow unproven technology to be rushed to market.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety believes automated technology has the potential to be transformative in reducing our nation’s mounting roadway death and injury toll,” Chase submitted in her written testimony. “However, we are deeply concerned about the future of automated, or autonomous, vehicles including trucks and buses. The lack of comprehensive federal performance standards, strong government oversight, adequate consumer information, and effective industry accountability imperils all road users who are currently unknowing and unwitting participants in the testing of experimental autonomous technology on public roadways.”

Chase noted that a recent survey from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety found that 80% of the public had concerns about sharing the road with driverless vehicles. She said it is important for lawmakers to ensure safety before allowing driverless vehicles.

Her submitted testimony also included photos and descriptions of several vehicles equipped with autonomous driving systems that were involved in crashes.

“AVs may, in the distant future, as many renowned industry and public officials have explained, bring about meaningful societal benefits and improvements to public safety, but it will require implementing and enforcing mandatory comprehensive safeguards to ensure AV technology is developed without putting the public at risk,” Chase wrote.

OOIDA comments

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association submitted its comments to the leaders of the Highways and Transit subcommittee. OOIDA said that lawmakers should proceed with caution, especially when it comes to the possibility of autonomous trucks.

“We understand the desire to swiftly unleash American ingenuity in multiple transportation sectors and agree the federal government must play an integral role in balancing safety and innovation on our roads,” OOIDA wrote. “But Congress should not pursue a one-size-fits-all legislative approach that implements the same policies for autonomous passenger and commercial vehicles.

“The safe operation of an automobile contrasts greatly with that of a heavy vehicle. The introduction of autonomous technology to both classes will present distinct safety challenges that should be addressed and regulated on separate paths. Naturally, the equipment and technology that works well on an automobile weighing 3,000 to 4,000 pounds is far different from what is needed for trucks weighing 80,000 pounds.”

The Association also called for mandatory data transparency from manufacturers.

“This will help educate consumers, the industry, and regulators about the actual reliability of autonomous technology,” OOIDA wrote. “Despite the various claims that AVs will lead to zero deaths, there have been real-world situations in which automation has devastatingly failed. While AVs might improve safety under certain conditions, they create new risks with dangerous and often unknown outcomes.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s self-certification approach isn’t good enough, OOIDA said.

“The use of unproven automated technologies on our highways poses a significant threat to small-business truckers, and we urge you to take action to protect all road users with greater transparency and oversight of their development,” OOIDA wrote. “Without such measures, we will never know how or why AV technology is causing crashes and fatalities. In fact, some developers have already used the legal system in hopes of keeping safety data from public view.” LL