T4America Blog

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Fundamentally flawed bill to govern automated vehicles springs back to life

A Senate bill that would leave cities, states, and the public in the dark while handing the keys to the self-driving auto industry has returned in the 11th hour, with the Senate considering a move to expedite its passage by attaching it to a huge must-pass aviation bill. (Updated: 9/18/2018)

NTSB investigators in Arizona examining the automated Volvo operated by Uber that killed a pedestrian. Photo by the NTSB.

Update (9/18/2018): Bloomberg reported today that the AV Start Act would NOT be attached to the FAA authorization bill, after a decision made by committee chairman Sen. John Thune. While the bill is still not dead, that likely ends the chance of passage anytime soon. Thanks to all of you who called or wrote your Senators.

After being shelved earlier this year in response to widespread concerns about its hands-off approach to regulating automated vehicles, the AV START Act appears to have only been “mostly dead,” and as we all know, mostly dead is also partly alive.

In response to rumblings that the Senate is considering attaching the AV START Act to the Federal Aviation Administration’s multi-year reauthorization that must pass before the end of September, T4America today resent a letter from May to Senators reminding them that the AV START Act is still “a fundamentally flawed bill that will put hundreds of thousands of automated vehicles (AVs) on the roads, keep local governments and the public from knowing much about where and how they are operating, while preempting cities and states from overseeing how and where these vehicles operate in their communities.”

We originally sent this letter to the leadership of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation back in May, after which time the bill appeared to be put on the backburner due to the concerns of T4America and numerous other groups — as well as the lack of a clear champion on the Hill. One of our biggest concerns with Congress’ approach at the time was that the final product was not the result of methodical policymaking, gathering robust feedback from everyone with a stake, and forging a true bipartisan consensus.

The process was instead largely influenced by the tech and auto industry and the final bill was the product of an unfortunate lack of interest from Congress on a critical issue that could reshape our towns and cities.

The most concerning issue is that the bill would essentially codify into federal law the same statewide approach that allowed self-driving vehicles to operate in Arizona with few regulations, almost no oversight, and no ability for local communities to even learn basic details about where and how these vehicles are operating.

As we all remember, that approach resulted in tragedy. From our letter:

Americans were deeply troubled after an AV operated by Uber struck and killed a woman in Tempe, AZ. Videos of the incident show the vehicle made no attempt to slow down before the crash and the safety driver failed to take control of the vehicle. It is clear that both the technology and the human safety driver failed, resulting in a tragic fatality. Reports after the fatality suggest that Uber had data indicating its vehicles were underperforming. Unfortunately, Arizona and many other states do not require AV operators to disclose any data regarding their performance. This leaves everyone in the dark about whether it is safe to move about our communities and creates a climate of secrecy around AV testing and deployment.

If you create a system that 1) allows mistakes to happen, and 2) intentionally keeps the public in the dark, there’s no way to be sure that anyone is going to learn a thing, much less feel confident that the public will be protected first and foremost.

As currently written, there is nothing in the AV START Act that would help cities, states, law enforcement, or even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) learn from these incidents or develop policies and safety regulations to prevent similar crashes in the future.

The Senate might be making a decision about whether or not to include this bill in the FAA authorization as soon as this afternoon, but the FAA authorization is unlikely to pass before its September 30 deadline, so get your calls in whenever you can.

Call your Senator’s office today and share this simple message with them:

  • Hi, my name is ___ and I’m calling from ___
  • I’m calling to let Senator ___ know that the Senate should NOT expedite the passage of the AV START Act by including it in the aviation bill.
  • The AV START Act will put hundreds of thousands of automated vehicles (AVs) on the roads, keep local governments and the public from knowing much about where and how these vehicles are operating, and preempt cities and states from any oversight.
  • This bill was produced too quickly, with too little input from local leaders or the people who will be most affected by this hands-off approach to letting the industry operate with almost no oversight. It
  • Please return it to committee and urge them to produce something thoughtful by working closely with the local and state transportation leaders who stand ready to address these problems.