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Senate Panel Gives the Green Light to Self-Driving Technology

Self-driving cars continue to be a hotly debated topic. In a recent blog, we raised several questions about the future of self-driving cars and their impact on the insurance and legal world; it appears we may have some answers.

On October 4, 2017, a U.S. Senate panel unanimously gave the green light to a bill aimed at speeding the use of self-driving cars. The bill contains numerous measures including a ban on states from imposing regulatory road blocks on the path to the technology’s full potential.

The bill, known as S. 1885, The American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act, was authored by Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.). Some of the measures contained in the bill are interesting to say the least, and reveal where the auto industry may be headed in the future. If passed, the bill would waive traditional automobile standards like steering wheels and brake pedals. Consumer advocates worry the bill’s exemption language is too broad and would allow manufacturers to opt out of safety features like air bags. But this appears to be of little concern to the drafters of the bill, as the goal is to remove the driver entirely. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) offered, and withdrew, an amendment to the bill that would have required a driver behind the wheel of autonomous vehicles. The drafters of the bill believe a provision requiring a driver behind the wheel would undermine the entire effort. “The headline tomorrow would read, ‘Senate mandates drivers in driverless cars,'” Thune said. “I don’t think that’s the headline we want coming out of this hearing.” Moving forward, this means traditional vehicle safety measures like airbags may not be relevant as the new technology takes over, but what is to replace these safety features to ensure passengers are protected remains unanswered.

Aside from self-driving cars, the proposed bill drew the attention of the commercial trucking industry. Companies like Tesla, Uber, and Alphabet have announced their intention to develop and deploy self-driving-semi-trucks, but these intentions have faced resistance from consumer advocates and workforce unions. It appears as the debate over allowing self-driving-semi-trucks on our roads will have to wait, as the bill purposely avoided the topic. Neither the House nor the Senate bill would speed approval of self-driving technology for vehicles over 10,000 pounds. Labor leader and Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said the “safe development of advanced heavy trucking technology must encapsulate the life-and-death issues that are specific to that industry, not consider such consequences as an inconvenient after-thought.” There are obvious dangers to semi-trucks sharing the roadways with pedestrians and conventional vehicles. But removing the truck drivers from the equation may only enhance the danger. While dangers like driver fatigue or distractions may no longer be an issue, other dangers like software glitches, computer failures, or poorly designed technology will emerge. It may take some time before consumers and lawmakers feel comfortable allowing such large vehicles to be controlled entirely by computers; the idea of an 80,000 pound runaway semi is disconcerting to say the least.

Under the bill, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would be required to write permanent rules on self-driving cars within ten years. This is revealing of the accelerated timeline for self-driving technology to be fully implemented. Furthermore, regulators would be required to study the impact of self-driving vehicles on infrastructure, traffic congestion and fuel consumption. Car manufacturers would also have to disclose what information self-driving cars are collecting about consumers and how that information is being used. Manufacturers would also need to disclose if consumers could opt out of this data collection, which creates an entirely new debate about consumer security and safety.

Advocates hope self-driving will reduce U.S. road deaths, which rose 7.7 percent in 2015, the highest annual increase since 1966. A 2014 study found U.S. traffic crashes cost society $836 billion annually, with human error accounting for 94 percent of those crashes; however, until self-driving technology is implemented, cars and commercial trucks continue to be one of the most dangerous instruments in our society.

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