We Want the U.S. to Lead in Driverless Cars. Here’s What Washington Can Do to Help.

The winter technology trade show season is officially in high gear with the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicking things off in Las Vegas last week. Some of the exciting new technologies we experienced at the show were Samsung’s machine learning technology that can convert low resolution television to 8K, Microsoft and partners’ law enforcement technology that can alert smart city police departments when a gun is drawn, as well as the latest in unmanned aircraft advancements.

This year, CES heavily showcased autonomous vehicles (AV) and connected car technology. Some of the U.S. Chamber’s team got a chance to ride in a remotely-driven vehicle down Las Vegas Boulevard powered by Phantom Auto’s software, which enables a backup driver to take the wheel of the vehicle. In this case, our driver sat at a console in Mountain View, CA. while we comfortably drove around the Las Vegas Strip. Since this was our first time in this kind of connected vehicle, we were incredibly impressed with the technological leaps connected and smart vehicles have made.

With CES over and smarter vehicles now front and center this week at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show and the Washington Auto Show, we will take a look at the promises offered by autonomous vehicles as well as the technical and legal landscape that will be necessary to make widespread use of this exciting and transformative technology available.

The promises of AV

As U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue pointed out at the Chamber’s 2018 Infrastructure Summit, the average American’s commute time continues to increase. Imagine being able to focus on work or relax on the way to work in the morning while sitting in less traffic. According to studies, this type of “rush hour” could be realized with AV technology. One researcher at the University of Illinois-Champaign reported that “experiments show that with as few as 5 percent of vehicles being automated or carefully controlled, we can eliminate stop-and-go waves caused by human driving behavior.”

Not only does AV tech promise easier commutes, it also has the potential to save lives. Government data indicates that human error is responsible for the vast majority of crashes. The safety implications of this new safety technology can prevent drunk driving accidents or enable disabled Americans greater mobility.

The technologies that will contribute to AV

Autonomous vehicles will require a mix of computing, sensing, and connectivity to achieve its full benefits. Artificial intelligence will be key to advancing the computer requirements needed to drive the sophisticated AV technology of the future. That’s why it’s so critical that lawmakers allow innovation in this space to thrive by striking the right regulatory balance when it comes to issues such as data privacy and cybersecurity.

Additionally, sensor technology continues to rapidly improve. It is important that new technologies that streamline utilization of automated driving technology on the road are not ignored or underexplored. One technology on display at CES was from Velodyne LiDAR, which uses lasers to produce a 3D view of the area in which a vehicle is driving. This technology is designed to complement existing technology such as traditional cameras and radar—bringing together a fuller picture of smart cities and road infrastructure. As new technology use becomes more ubiquitous, its price continues to be more competitive.

Finally, on connectivity, some, but not all, companies envision wireless broadband technology, like 5G technology, will be used to communicate data with the outside world and to other vehicles. Studies show that 5G technology can improve vehicle-to-vehicle communication. This can cut down on vehicle distances, leading potentially to energy cost savings. While autonomous vehicles may be online in some capacity, some successful AV developers do not rely on a constant internet connection to operate safely.

Unfortunately, many localities don’t understand the long-term benefits of small cell 5G technology, so they are imposing archaic siting and revenue-based fee requirements previously designed for larger cell towers. This hinders much-needed investment in wireless technology which will connect the vehicles of the future. Both Congress and the FCC can step in to prevent these unreasonable practices from occurring, and they should.

We need a federal AV standard

With America’s deep automobile manufacturing experience and world-leading technology companies, the United States has the potential to define and lead in the autonomous vehicle arena — resulting in new innovations that save lives and create economic opportunity. Last year both houses of Congress  made great progress introducing and moving legislation that clarifies the federal role in regulating autonomous vehicles, prevents a patchwork of state regulations by providing for federal preemption, and gives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rulemaking authority. We need lawmakers to continue the momentum and pass autonomous vehicle legislation in 2018.

Why? The current framework is painfully outdated. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards were written without consideration of autonomous vehicles. The bills currently moving through Congress are a first attempt at updating our current framework, allowing the U.S. to be competitive with the rest of the world in the autonomous vehicle space.

Make no mistake: there is cost to doing nothing. A 2017 study from Intel found that driverless vehicles will create $7 trillion worth of economic activity and new efficiencies annually by 2050. The study further estimated that more than half a million lives would be saved between 2035 and 2045 because of autonomous vehicles’ potential for greater safety, and public safety expenditures would be reduced by more than $234 billion over the same period.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) captured the sense of urgency in her comments last summer at the 2017 Autonomous Vehicle Summit in Detroit. “Driverless technology is going to be developed whether we like it or not, and the question before us is whether the United States is going to be the international leader in this area,” said Dingell. “It is critical that we have a strong, flexible regulatory framework for automated vehicles that protects consumers and puts safety first, but also keeps up with the pace of rapidly changing technology. Here in Michigan we’ve been working long and hard to launch the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, and know that enacting federal legislation like the SELF DRIVE Act is imperative to reshaping American innovation for generations to come and ensuring the U.S. remains at the forefront of advanced vehicle technology.”

In order to ensure U.S. manufacturers are competitive in a global autonomous vehicle market, Congress must pass a federal AV standard that strikes the right balance between innovation, safety, and privacy.

While you’re enjoying the bright lights of the auto show, keep in mind that without a single set of federal standards, we risk impeding our innovators and ceding our leadership in this industry.

Editor’s note (2/7/2018): The paragraph on 5G technology clarifies that some AV developers do not rely on constant internet connectivity for safe operation.