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Opinion

Autonomous Vehicles Check the Boxes of DOT’s Innovation Principles

An aerial 2.5D view of a vibrant purple and blue, illustrated cityscape with buildings, trees, roads, vehicles and pedestrians co-existing

Earlier this year Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg unveiled a set of innovation principles for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) approach to new technologies. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) fit squarely within these goals and belong on DOT’s agenda to improve safety, equity, and the environment for Americans.

Despite fewer vehicles on the road during the pandemic, traffic fatalities have surged. An estimated 31,720 people died in the first nine months of last year — the highest number in 15 years and the largest year-over-year percentage increase since 1975. Speeding, reckless behavior, and alcohol-impaired driving are cited as some of the leading causes for the deaths of drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users.

We cannot be desensitized to the crisis on our roads. Unlike human drivers, AVs don’t get distracted, don’t speed, and don’t drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs — three conditions attributed to thousands of lives lost on U.S. roads each year. The automotive industry has a long tradition of innovation: seat belts, anti-lock brakes, airbags, backup cameras, and electronic stability control. AV technology is just the latest advancement in automotive innovation.

On top of the technology’s significant potential safety benefits, AVs offer opportunities to fulfill all the aims of Secretary Buttigieg’s innovation principles:

Serve key policy priorities, such as creating economic opportunity, enabling equitable access to transportation, and addressing climate change. With policymakers’ support, AVs are poised to increase equity and may improve environmental quality by enabling consumers to travel without the prerequisite of a personally owned vehicle. In addition, 25.5 million Americans have travel-limiting disabilities like blindness, epilepsy, and spinal cord injuries. AVs offer a singular opportunity to give the disability community more independence, making it easier for them to get to school, work and have fun with friends and family.

While creating new transportation options for disadvantaged communities, AVs may also present opportunities to reduce emissions. Many companies are already using electric vehicles (EVs) for their AV fleets, proactively planning for the use of shared, electric AV fleets to reduce the number of personal vehicle trips and potentially reduce congestion with smoother driving and more efficient routing. In fact, the University of California San Diego found that autonomous heavy-duty trucks can reduce fuel consumption by at least 10 percent.

Support workers. The AV industry is already creating thousands of well-paid, full-time jobs, available to individuals with a wide range of education and skill levels, many of which do not require a college degree. AVs may not need a driver behind the wheel, but the industry still needs service technicians, remote assistance operators, customer support, mapping data collection specialists, fleet operators, delivery packers, engineers, software developers and more. The Pittsburgh region, for example, has become a hub for AV development with over 6,300 jobs. In the trucking industry, autonomous long-haul trucks could work hand-in-hand with truck drivers, creating up to 35,100 jobs and raising workers’ wages across the economy without mass layoffs.

Foster U.S. competitiveness through reliable and adaptive transportation systems and infrastructure. Foreign countries are jockeying to overtake America’s leadership on AVs. Germany, Singapore, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and other countries have or are laying out legal frameworks and investing millions into AV development. Meanwhile China has zeroed in on AVs as a top government-backed priority, with AV taxis operating in Shenzhen and Beijing. The U.S. needs to cement its AV leadership status to secure the technology’s potential safety, economic, and societal benefits.

Allow for experimentation and learn from setbacks. Like any innovation, AVs are the product of rigorous simulated and real-world testing. Companies are thinking holistically and comprehensively about how to ensure technology is not only safe, but safer than human driving. Critical considerations include other road users, passenger experience, and local rules of the road.

Provide opportunities for collaboration among the public, private, and academic sectors. To deliver the potential benefits of AVs, companies are actively pursuing partnerships with universities, NGOs, and businesses. Autonomous delivery pilots are underway with Walmart and Kroger to eliminate food deserts. The University of Michigan Ford Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Carnegie Mellon University Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research exemplify the role of leading academic institutions. And De Anza College and Pima Community College offer two examples of job certification programs. The industry also works collaboratively with local, state, and federal policymakers to see the technology firsthand and to understand its positive impact.

Favor flexible policies that can adapt as technology evolves. For AVs to flourish, the United States needs a national framework that supports testing and deployment. This will help facilitate further advancements in the technology, while ensuring its potential benefits are realized more widely across the country. The current flexible approach allows the industry to innovate in pursuit of the safest technology, regularly releasing voluntary safety reports and complying with all state and federal reporting regimes to share detailed information about how the technology works.

Without a doubt, AVs check the boxes of the innovation principles. Concerted action to facilitate AV testing and deployment should be part of DOT and NHTSA’s comprehensive safe systems approach, in addition to other necessary steps like better road design, reduced speeds, and drunk-driving prevention systems. With the right partnerships, considerations, and policy support, AVs could deliver vital safety, equity, economic and environmental benefits. We urge DOT, NHTSA, and other policymakers to act in support of AV technology in order to accomplish our shared objectives.

Ariel Wolf is general counsel for the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association.

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