Can Uncle Sam promote self-driving vehicles?

Shutterstock image: traffic light.

Cars and trucks that drive themselves?

The technology is close, and supporters say such vehicles would generate safety and savings. But exactly where federal regulations fit in remains to be hashed out.

Industry experts said they sought regulatory “balance” – and briefly clashed with a senator – in a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing July 7.

“We really need to have federal standards,” Susan Alt, senior vice president in the Volvo arm that handles “everything except cars,” as she put it, told the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee.

Alt said autopilot trucks – trucks in which a driver is present, but not always actively operating the vehicle – could hit roads by 2020 with the right federal support, though the evolution will require social changes in addition to legal and technological improvements.

“Are you going to be comfortable in your vehicle with a 16,000-pound truck right beside you with a driver who’s [not entirely] in control?” Alt asked hypothetically of the average driver.

What Alt had to say about radio frequencies sparked outrage from New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.

“I was shocked by what I read,” Booker said of Alt’s written testimony.

Alt argued that the 5.9 GHz band of the radio frequency spectrum should “remain dedicated to safety related applications only” – an assertion that Booker interpreted as an indictment of the Wi-Fi Innovation Act he has co-sponsored with Florida Republican Marco Rubio.

She said that automatic sensors on trucks – the kind of sensors that will help trucks operate more safely in the near-term and will prove vital to making trucks self-driving in the future – could be interrupted by nearby Wi-Fi usage, causing collisions if trucks’ sensory input is delayed in a congested area.

“I’ve never seen something clearly so misleading in my time in the Senate,” Booker fired back. “Did you read our legislation, yes or no?”

“No,” Alt admitted.

“Our bill, for those who read it … simply provides further structure for testing alone,” Booker said. “It is a fact-finding bill and that’s all.”

Booker noted that, “industry’s been sitting on the spectrum since about 1990,” and he clarified exactly what his bill is intended to do.

“What the bill is simply saying is, ‘Let’s begin to have a fact-finding discussion, can it [the 5.9 GHz band] possibly be shared without infringing on safety?’” Booker said. “To attack the bill on false standing is insulting.”

‘Free to innovate’

On broader regulatory issues, industry and lawmakers alike bemoaned the “patchwork” of state laws that keep the transportation industry from being able to easily embrace new technologies.

They are calling for national regulations to promote what Gregory Fox, executive vice president at the BNSF Railway, called “a regulatory framework that encourages innovation.” He explained that he meant federal regulations should focus on outcomes rather than designs, leaving industry “free to innovate.”

Amazon’s Paul Misener noted the importance of public support for the infrastructure the private sector uses, and the crucial role that “balanced” regulation can play in promoting new technologies.

“Technology can help us get more out of what we’ve already built,” Booker noted, citing the congestion reductions, job creation and safety improvements that could come with increasingly automated transport.

“In my 31 years at the railroad I’ve seen safety improve year after year,” noted the railroad veteran Fox. “Technology has clearly played a role in this success.”

He cited the potential of drones for railway monitoring as one of many exciting experiments.

But for now technology has, in some ways, made driving less safe, with distracted drivers, “doing things they’re not supposed to be doing,” noted Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota).

The fix might be to take the steering wheel away from humans altogether. But Volvo’s Alt said “we’re a long way away” for the totally self-driving car.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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