In retrospect, finding common ground was no easy task for the 114th Congress.
Proxy wars between Republicans and Democrats have triggered the collapse of bipartisan cooperation on some major transportation issues. While the December 2015 passage of the FAST Act was considered a success, Congress repeatedly struggled with a water resources bill and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Nonetheless, boosting self-driving cars (also known as autonomous vehicles, or AVs) became one of the rare points on which Republicans and Democrats could agree.
Today, U.S. automakers and tech firms are the world’s leading pioneers in autonomous vehicle research. From self-driving car tests by Google to Uber’s deployment of semi-autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, the industry has become a success story for American innovation.
The global pitch for developing the technology was normalized in years of keynote speeches, Congressional testimonies, and company blog posts: 35,000 lives are lost every year to car accidents . . . 95% of those accidents are due to human error . . . one-third of urban space is devoted to parking and can be reclaimed . . . commuters waste X hours in traffic every year in Y city.
Thanks to the grand promises in this mission statement, federal and state officials were happy to take a hands-off approach to regulating the development and testing of the vehicles. Some states, such as California and Florida, even opted to create legislative and regulatory frameworks that were friendly to companies testing on their public roads.
Google often refers to the division that builds its self-driving car, Google X, as a moonshot factory – a place where engineers work on exceedingly difficult projects.
Aside from being a complex undertaking, moonshot is a particularly fitting term for developing the self-driving car. The Apollo program that put the first man on the moon has widespread support today and, consequently, is often perceived as being almost unanimously supported by Americans at the time.
But public support for Apollo wavered for a variety of reasons throughout its lifetime, sometimes dropping as low as 40 percent. Congressional support also faltered as budgetary concerns and other competing priorities diverted the attention of Republicans and Democrats alike.
A self-driving future is no moon and federal government investments in the technology will never quite reach the levels of Apollo, but blind acceptance of any moonshot eventually wears out.
In this case, Democrats may be the first to go.
Autonomous vehicles are the Rorschach test of policy: where a Republican might see unfettered competition creating jobs and revitalizing the American auto industry, a Democrat sees reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improving life for low-income communities.
Or, Democrats may see a public safety risk greater than the 35,000 lives lost every year to human error in car accidents.
In a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee hearing last week, Democrats also saw danger through the lens of panel witness Laura MacCleery, Vice President of Consumer Policy and Mobilization at Consumer Reports.
Following the fatal Tesla Autopilot collision this summer, Consumer Reports called on Tesla to take the following steps:
“Disable Autosteer until it can be reprogrammed to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.
Stop referring to the system as “Autopilot” as it is misleading and potentially dangerous.
Issue clearer guidance to owners on how the system should be used and its limitations.
Test all safety-critical systems fully before public deployment; no more beta releases.”
(Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated that Autopilot is still in a public beta phase that informs drivers that they are responsible for monitoring road conditions and holds them responsible. He argues that “when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”)
MacCleery, who has long been a polarizing force on consumer safety issues ranging from product chemicals and compounds to dietary guidelines to food dyes, did not parse any words. She told Forbes: “By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security . . . Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs.”
In her opening statement, MacCleery called on AV developers and companies to release safety data to NHTSA and the public – an action that the industry fears may compromise trade secrets. She also called on Congress to strengthen the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) enforcement capabilities as outlined in H.R. 1181, the Vehicle Safety Improvement Act of 2015.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, and would have placed significant regulations and transparency requirements on manufacturers and NHTSA alike.
Schakowsky tossed the panel a couple of softball questions during the hearing that were closely related to her bill. In response, MacCleery emphasized that NHTSA’s vehicle safety standards are insufficient – especially if a mixture of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles are operating on public roads. Furthermore, MacCleery claimed that Consumer Reports testing demonstrated autonomous vehicles to be incapable of navigating the combination of pedestrians, cyclists, and cars on the road – causing them to swerve and hit vulnerable pedestrians or cyclists. (It must be noted that MacCleery did not cite safety data to support this assertion.)
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the ranking member of House Energy & Commerce who appears to have worked with MacCleery on prior E&C legislation, proceeded to question MacCleery on cybersecurity issues for AVs. MacCleery’s answer was blunt: the cybersecurity guidance released earlier this year was “a good first step,” but NHTSA must provide more detail on how the industry should prevent cyber attacks.
The Democratic theme throughout the hearing was skepticism of the industry’s ability to safely develop autonomous vehicles – and NHTSA’s lack of preparation for regulating them. Perhaps the most telling: Rep. Schakowsky asked NHTSA Administrator Rosekind if consumers could still have confidence in his agency after the slow recall of exploding Takata airbags in over 300,000 vehicles.
Something for Everyone
Notwithstanding concerns presented by Democratic legislators, autonomous vehicles still present a host of benefits for many Americans.
Republicans have viewed autonomous vehicle development as a prime example of how market forces can drive innovation for social good. Silicon Valley companies and automakers have developed their versions of the technology faster than federal agencies could regulate it; at most, the U.S. Department of Transportation finally released a long-awaited, non-binding Policy Statement this September.
On the other end, Democrats see opportunities for AVs to augment existing transit systems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by being programmed to drive efficiently and optimize routing to avoid traffic delays. Democrats have also seen the potential for AVs to address transit inequity for low-income communities – envisioning fleets of autonomous, electric vehicles serving every strata of society.
These viewpoints are entirely complimentary and even exchangeable between parties, depending on the Member or Senator’s priorities. Beyond partisan politics, autonomous vehicles can potentially expand mobility options for the entire cross-section of American citizens.
For America’s population of aging and disabled, autonomous vehicles will become a new mobility option for connecting with nearby transportation hubs, family members, and health care facilities.
Residents of rural areas often face significant challenges travelling without a car, even while travelling locally, due to low-density development and inadequate public transit options. Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Space, and Transportation Committee that oversees autonomous vehicles, has been a major proponent of AVs for these reasons. In a hearing this year, he indicated that his interest is partially due to South Dakota’s challenges in eliminating drunk driving.
Congressional support for autonomous vehicle development may also be an extension of bipartisan reverence for Uber and Lyft, two San Francisco-based rideshare companies that have become darlings of American innovation. An Uber pilot project in Pittsburgh is already carrying passengers around the city in semi-autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile, Lyft and GM have teamed up to develop a self-driving fleet that will replace drivers on the scrappy startup’s platform.
The firms, which are already locked in fierce competition in over 200 cities, have brought unprecedented star power to the drama of AV development. Their rivalry is often compared to the Rebel Alliance and Evil Empire, providing rhetorical fodder for Democrats lauding America’s thriving tech sector and Republicans touting the benefits of unfettered competition.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that some Congressional leaders and their family members have driven for the companies. The daughter of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) drove for Lyft with his Congressional plates, stirring up 24 hours of confusion in Washington. This week we learned that Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) moonlights as an Uber driver.
Interestingly, an Uber driver also ran against Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) by giving his stump speech during each ride. (Asst. Ed. Note: Yours truly was even treated to an hour-long stump speech by an UberPool driver running for D.C. Delegate this year – the candidate earned an unprecedented one-star rating.)