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 36,096 fatalities in 2019 and are estimated to have caused significantly more deaths in 2020. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has shown that 94% of crashes involve human error.
Legislation that would encourage 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 bill did not reach the floor. The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, S. 2302, which was reported by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the 116th Congress, would have encouraged research and development of infrastructure that could accommodate new technologies such as autonomous vehicles; however, it was not voted on by the Senate. Since then, Congress has taken no further action on the subject. No comprehensive autonomous vehicle legislation has been introduced in the 117th Congress as of the date of this report.
Meanwhile, several fatal accidents involving autonomous vehicles have raised new questions about how federal and state governments should regulate vehicle testing and about 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, in separate incidents, three Tesla drivers died when they failed to respond to hazards not recognized by the vehicles. In April 2021, two men were killed in Texas after a Tesla they were riding in crashed, with no one reportedly in the driver’s seat. 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. Some auto-industry executives have expressed a similar view. With the authorization of federal highway and public transportation programs set to expire at the end of FY2021, there may be efforts to include autonomous vehicle provisions in a surface transportation reauthorization bill.
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