Issues in Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Deployment
Fully autonomous vehicles, which would carry out many or all of their functions without the intervention of a driver, may someday bring sweeping social and economic changes and “lead to breakthrough gains in transportation safety.” Motor vehicle crashes caused an estimated 36,560 fatalities in 2018; a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has shown that 94% of crashes are due to human errors.
Legislation that would encourage the development and testing of autonomous vehicles has faced controversy in Congress. In the 115th Congress, the House of Representatives passed an autonomous vehicle bill, H.R. 3388, by voice vote in September 2017. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation reported a different bill, S. 1885, in November 2017, but after some Senators raised concerns about the preemption of state laws and the possibility of large numbers of vehicles being exempted from some Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the Senate bill did not reach the floor. No further action was taken on either bill before the 115th Congress adjourned.
Although some Members of Congress remain interested in autonomous vehicles, no legislative proposals have become law. Several fatal accidents involving autonomous vehicles raised new questions about how federal and state governments should regulate vehicle testing and the introduction of new technologies into vehicles offered for sale. A pedestrian was killed in Arizona by an autonomous vehicle operated by Uber on March 18, 2018, and three Tesla drivers died when they failed to respond to hazards not recognized by the vehicles. These accidents suggest that the challenge of producing fully autonomous vehicles that can operate safely on public roads may be greater than developers had envisioned, a new outlook voiced by several executives, including the Ford Motor Co. CEO. However, with the authorization of federal highway and public transportation programs set to expire at the end of FY2020, a surface transportation reauthorization bill could become a focus of efforts to also enact autonomous vehicle legislation.
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