In recent weeks, certain U.S. Senators and elements of the auto industry, have insisted the entire future driverless cars is dependent upon swift approval of the AV START Act. The need they claim for speed is so great there’s no time to debate the merits or details of the bill in public, instead the bill must be attached to a must pass piece of legislation such as the FAA reauthorization bill. Failing such measures, these interests say, the entire future of autonomous vehicle technology will pass America by. This is a tall tale made up by DC lobbyists to justify high fees and exaggerated promises made at the beginning of this Congress.
The manufactured urgency to rush passage of AV START by attaching it to the FAA reauthorization bill is built on a series of myths and fear mongering. The fact is public testing of driverless cars is already ongoing in the U.S., subject to local oversight. The fact is the AV START Act removes city and and state controls and does nothing to mandate federal safety rules. And, the fact is, this bill paves the way for the sale of unregulated driverless cars to the public while removing liability from manufacturers. Policy questions involving potentially revolutionary transportation technology deserve their own debate – not to be treated as carry-on luggage.
Some specific examples of these myths include:
MYTH: AV-START must be passed immediately because, without it or a similar law, manufacturers cannot test driverless cars and get the data needed to improve driverless cars.
FACT: A federal law was passed in 2015 to allow the testing of an unlimited number autonomous vehicles in public. Section 24404 of the FAST Act (Pub. L. No. 114-94) allows manufacturers to evaluate and test vehicles that do not comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, so long as those test vehicles are not sold or made available for sale after testing.
This provision in the FAST Act is what is allowing AV testing to take place right now in 12 states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas – and the District of Columbia. Georgia, Maine, Ohio, Oregon, Washington are in the process of preparing for AV testing.
The fact is there is no urgent need for a federal law to allow for testing of autonomous vehicles because one already exists. If AV START did not pass until next Congress, or never passed at all, driverless car testing could continue across the United States indefinitely. 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. 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. To top it off, the bill contains no requirement for federal rules governing the safety of these vehicles before sale.
MYTH: Current Congressional proposals (like the AV-START Act) do nothing to inhibit states and localities from engaging in their traditional role of oversight regarding who can operate vehicles in their jurisdiction and how those vehicles may operate.
FACT: AV-START would preempt states and localities from writing or enforcing laws and regulations relating to the performance of the driverless vehicles that would be sold and operated in local neighborhoods.
AV-START prohibits states from “regulating the design, construction, or performance” of AVs. While this may seem to maintain the status quos of the federal government setting safety and performance standards via Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, in the context of autonomous vehicles, it is not that simple.
When a driverless vehicle takes over the role of the traditional driver, state traffic laws still apply to that vehicle, and how that driverless vehicle performs can directly affect its ability to comply with local law. Instead of preserving the role of states, AV-START exacerbates this conflict between state and federal law, and effectively allows AV manufacturers to decide the future of state and local traffic laws in the absence of federal regulation.
The United States Conference of Mayors, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislators, the National League of Cities, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials, the Governors Highway Safety Administration, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials have all called on Congress to amend AV-START so that it is clear that States retain authority over traffic safety regulations.
MYTH: AV-START must be passed immediately because it creates a pathway to federal regulations of AVs.
FACT: No, it doesn’t.
The AV-START Act contains a number of provisions that require NHTSA or other working groups and advisory committees to conduct studies about Autonomous Vehicles. These include Sections 10, 12, 14, 15 and 18 of AV-START which direct the DOT Secretary to direct studies or evaluate recommendations based on studies. Yet, the only required rulemaking in the entire bill pertains to point-of-sale information available to potential AV purchasers. The bill does not require rulemaking of any kind to address critical AV issues such as performance and safety, cybersecurity, data recording and access, and infrastructure. For a product that is being marketed to radically enhance safety this seems rather dangerous.
Not only will such a hands-off approach enable a race to the bottom in terms of non-traditional automakers getting driverless cars on the road, it provides exactly zero benefit to the driving, bicycling, and walking public when these vehicles arrive in our neighborhoods. Given AV-START’s preemption of state action in these areas, the absence of requirements for federal rulemakings means that AV manufacturers are in complete control when it comes to consumer safety in AVs. As history has proven time and time over, automakers and technology companies are incapable of voluntarily prioritizing safety over profit, and NHTSA is an unwilling regulator. Whether the danger is from Jeeps’ gas tanks catching on fire; GM’s ignition switches failing while the car is in motion; Uber’s turning off sensors; or Tesla selling advanced cruise control as driverless technology the problem remains: Any bill that does not require NHTSA to regulate ensures that the safety of the American public will take a back seat to shareholders as technology advances.