Americans will see autonomous vehicles (AV) operating by about 2020 in confined areas, with rollout of fully autonomous vehicles on roads and highways by the end of the next decade, according to witnesses testifying on Wednesday at a U.S. Senate field hearing in Washington, D.C., on automotive innovation and federal policies.

Although manufacturing witnesses Tim Kentley-Klay, CEO and co-founder of self-driving car startup Zoox Inc., and Mike Mansuetti, president of Robert Bosch North America, anticipate that timeframe, Randy Avent, president of Florida Polytechnic University, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation panel that deployment of fully autonomous vehicles will take “longer than many technologists believe.”

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), committee chairman, cited bipartisan legislation he introduced on Sept. 28, the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act, as he cautioned in opening remarks that the United States must not delay the technology’s deployment through excessive regulation.

“If U.S. regulators are not able to foster safe testing and deployment of AV technology through modernizations like those in AV START, the rest of the world will not sit by,” Thune said. “America currently leads the way in auto innovation, but many other countries, particularly China, are catching up.”

At the same time, there are “tough policy and societal questions that we must all work together to answer” as AVs become more widespread, Thune said. Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) raised the “crucial” need for “responsible oversight to ensure the safe development and deployment of these emerging technologies.”

Nelson also noted General Motors’ recent announcement that it plans to put fully autonomous vehicles without a steering wheel or gas pedal on public roads as a ride-sharing service in several urban areas as early as 2019.

Meanwhile, Avent pointed out that existing regulations cannot be applied because AV technology is a new and evolving field. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said he hoped that reaching a regulatory middle ground would enable AV innovation to flourish while ensuring safety.

The hearing witnesses agreed that AVs would improve safety and reduce crash fatalities, with Kentley-Klay noting the vehicles afford “pervasive 360-degree perception with no [driver] blind spots.” Kentley-Klay added, “Having developed this technology [for] three years full time, we are convinced it will deliver on [its] safety promise, and then some.”

Luke Schneider, president of Audi Mobility U.S., testified that 1.25 million people die in auto accidents each year globally, and human error is the No. 1 cause. “Vehicle automation promises to improve safety on our roads, and reduce collisions by as much as 90 percent,” Schneider said.

Committee members at the hearing acknowledged that AVs could mean greater mobility for senior citizens, the disabled, and persons in communities underserved by public transit, as well as environmental and health benefits such as lower fuel emissions and fewer crash fatalities. However, they also noted that these vehicles present concerns over driver job losses in the transportation community, changes in the liquid fuel industry due to reduced demand, and the need for cybersecurity of operating systems and consumer data. Furthermore, the new technology must take into account how autonomous vehicles would interact with the nation’s transportation infrastructure, as well as design considerations for disabled persons’ needs.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) asked witnesses about how AVs respond to U.S. road signs and road markers and ways the development and manufacturing community are working with state and local transportation officials on this.

Kentley-Klay said that AV technology is being developed to work with existing signs, lights, and other indicators. In that vein, Avent told Capito that Florida Polytechnic’s partnership with the Florida Turnpike Enterprise enables its developers to conduct open road testing. Another partnership with the Orlando Smart City Initiative offers the opportunity for Florida Polytechnic researchers to test in an urban environment.

Avent also encouraged the federal government’s involvement in AV research funding through quasi-governmental centers and consortia similar to the Department of Defense’s Federally Funded Research and Development Centers and University Affiliated Research Centers, and government public education campaigns in concert with industry and developers in order to build consumer trust in AV technology.

Thune introduced S. 1885 on Sept. 28, 2017 with Peters. According to the Commerce Committee, the bill would require AV manufacturers to report to the U.S. Department of Transportation on how they are addressing cybersecurity, operating system security, and vehicle crashworthiness. Local, state, and federal regulatory roles for vehicles would continue to apply.

The Commerce Committee unanimously passed the AV START Act on Oct. 4, issued its bill report on Nov. 28, and sent the measure to the full Senate for consideration.

By Jean Gossman

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