How AV Technology is Driving Solutions During COVID-19

One lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of technology in keeping Americans connected and enabling innovative contactless solutions. As policymakers continue to grapple with the best solutions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, enable swift economic recovery, and build resiliency for future pandemics, one technological solution that should not be overlooked is automated vehicle (AV) technology.  

AV technology has already demonstrated its potential in the present pandemic. In May, the U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center (C_TEC) hosted an event called “Tech in the Time of Coronavirus” that highlighted how Beep, an autonomous mobility startup, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, and others are partnering to provide an autonomous shuttle service to transport COVID-19 medical tests to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. The technology protects frontline hospital workers and patients from exposure and empowers hospital staff to focus on other pressing priorities.  

In addition, leaders in the AV ecosystem are stepping up to support their customers, suppliers, and communities at large during these difficult times. For example, Cruise has utilized its autonomous vehicle fleet to provide over 20,000 contactless food deliveries to food banks across San Francisco. Others, such as Embark and TuSimple, have helped keep interstate commerce flowing by utilizing their commercial trucking fleets to deliver critical supplies to communities across the U.S. In a recent letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore.), C_TEC highlighted numerous other examples of how a diverse set of businesses of all sizes and sectors are making important contributions.  

As the United States moves into a “new normal,” it will be increasingly important to understand how technology can play a role in that future and ensure the effective utilization of technology through sound public policy. In particular, the widespread deployment of AV technology is limited by existing regulatory barriers that can be addressed through action from both Congress and the administration. 

Also included in C_TEC’s letter were the following commonsense policy solutions that can be enacted in this Congress:  

  1. Create a nationwide framework to regulate AV technology that also preserves state and local responsibilities in areas such as traffic laws and insurance.  
  2. Ensure a level playing field for all stakeholders developing AV technology.
  3. Reform the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) exemption process through increasing the number and duration of exemptions to incentivize deployment.  
  4. Accelerate the process to update Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to accommodate innovative motor vehicle designs.  

Lawmakers should consider including these policy solutions in surface transportation reauthorization legislation.  

Likewise, the administration can also take a leadership role in advancing AV technology. The DOT’s latest Significant Rulemaking Report from February lists several regulatory items at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that could spur innovation and provide certainty for industry. While NHTSA should be commended for issuing a rulemaking earlier this year to update occupant protection standards for AVs, it is imperative that NHTSA, FMCSA, and DOT continue to modernize regulations to move this technology forward.  

Industry has stepped up to the plate to leverage technology solutions such as AVs to combat the pandemic, and now more than ever policymakers have an opportunity to also take a leadership role in formulating commonsense policy solutions to ensure that AV technology reaches its full potential.