Imagine if the first time a car with an internal combustion engine crashed we just decided it would be easier to stick with the horse and buggy. Or if the Wright brothers, after their first few attempts to defy gravity, packed up and went back to their bicycle repair shop. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) and related safety technologies have the power to be just as transformative as cars and airplanes, but require action by Congress to eliminate regulatory roadblocks.
In order for us to ultimately realize the innovative and life-saving potential of AVs, we must be able to safely test and deploy autonomous vehicles on the public roadways. Having devoted much of my career to transportation safety, I know how important it is be able to realize the potential of new technology — but in a safe and thoughtful way.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune agrees, which is why he’s introduced a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate, the AV START Act, to establish a nationwide framework to ensure the safe testing and deployment of driverless vehicles.
The AV START Act, which is similar to legislation that passed the House of Representatives and is strongly supported by Senators on both sides of the aisle, would expand oversight and safety protections while still encouraging innovations we know will transform the roadways of the future.
Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s rules do not account for self-driving vehicles. For example, there’s currently a requirement that a human foot operate a brake pedal — how would an AV satisfy that? The AV START Act would require NHSTA to update the current regulations to better align with today’s transportation technology.
Importantly, the AV START Act doesn’t diminish any of NHTSA’s existing regulatory authorities to set uniform vehicle safety standards, issue recalls or investigate crashes. It also does not limit a state’s existing authority with respect to traditional areas of vehicle regulation, such as insurance, licensing, registration, or traffic safety laws and regulations. What the bill does do is clarify what has been the case for decades with non-automated vehicles: that NHTSA will set overall vehicle safety standards in order to ensure uniformity across all 50 states.
All of us will ultimately benefit from the reality of autonomous vehicles and related technologies. The South Dakota Highway Patrol recently reported that the number of traffic fatalities on the state’s roadways is up 26 percent from last year. When AVs are fully deployed, we will be able to significantly reduce that number by reducing — and hopefully eliminating — accidents caused by drunk, distracted and fatigued drivers. Self-driving cars will also provide independence and freedom to the elderly and disabled.
Let’s apply what we’ve already learned about safety to reduce risk and pave the way for a technology that ultimately save many more lives. That’s a future that South Dakotans — and all Americans — can embrace.