How should we encourage driverless vehicles?

by Tom Petri US House of Representatives

Innovation continues to move our society forward, and ideas previously thought to be pure science fiction are now a part of our everyday lives.

In the auto industry, vehicle technology is evolving alongside consumer demands for mobile phone connectivity, automation, and better gas efficiency. As a result, many of the new technologies that are being developed are focused on improving driver awareness, reducing distracted driving, and, consequently, making our roads safer.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to see connected-vehicle technology firsthand in new cars and learn how auto manufacturers are leading the way in developing safer ways to drive and interact with other vehicles on the road. Automatic parallel parking, cross traffic alerts, and blind spot indicators are some of the features already being incorporated in cars to assist drivers and improve awareness. Being able to play music through phone apps, voice commands, or having the car read text messages to the driver are features that significantly reduce distracted driving. Many of these, such as rear view cameras and Bluetooth phone connectivity, are already fast becoming standard.

In November, I chaired a hearing of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee on the future of driverless vehicles—another exciting prospect that some predict will hit the roads by 2021. Google, many auto manufacturers, and research universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, have already achieved some success with self-driving vehicles. This discussion spurred many questions: What is the role of government in developing or regulating these technologies? How will infrastructure and laws have to change to accommodate autonomous vehicles? What impact will automation have on jobs?

All are legitimate questions that need to be asked; many will take years to answer.

One of the most obvious advantages of these technolo- gies will be to reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities on the road. Human driver error is a contributing factor in almost 90 percent of crashes. Reducing this figure could therefore not only make our roads safer, but also reduce traffic congestion, improve fuel efficiency, and extend vehicle life. According to the Eno Center for Transportation, a 50 percent penetration of the market with self-driving vehicles would save almost 10,000 lives per year, highway lane capacity would increase by 21 percent, and fuel consumption would be cut by 224 million gallons per year.

These benefits are not limited to personal driving. The same consequences—and the same questions—are also applicable in the commercial trucking industry.

Connected vehicle technologies, such as lane-keeping systems, automatic braking, and adaptive cruise control, are already making their way onto trucks. As these features start to become less expensive and, therefore, more common, current regulations will have to be reevaluated. Hours-of-service regulations create confusion, headaches, and delays for ground shipments and for the hard-working men and women in the trucking industry. Looking forward, why couldn’t an “auto-pilot” eventually take over for truckers on interstates, taking some of the stress off the operator? If an autonomous car could drive someone in their personal vehicle, why couldn’t our trucking industry have a similar advantage, thus improving efficiency and allowing hours-of-service rules to be modified?

As with any new technology, extensive testing, certification, and training would be needed to truly offer a safety advantage, but these possibilities are certainly not out of reach.

These exciting potential developments for safer roads bring us to the next question many ask of lawmakers: What role should government have in regulating or promoting new technology or autonomous vehicles?

New technologies are already on their way—America has always been a cradle of innovation and competition. Congress has a responsibility to follow these technological developments and anticipate future issues. But at the same time, private companies, universities, and individuals need to be able to flourish, invent, and advance without overly-burdensome government regulations holding them back.

U.S. Representative Tom Petri represents Wisconsin’s Sixth Congressional District and is the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit

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