- The Honorable Robert Sumwalt, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
- The Honorable Joel Szabat, Acting Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, U.S. Department of Transportation
- Dr. James Owens, Acting Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
*Witness list subject to change
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
This hearing will take place in the Hart Senate Office Building 216. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
Chairman Roger Wicker
Today’s hearing will focus on the federal government’s role in realizing the opportunities offered by automated vehicles (AVs). These technological advancements in the transportation industry have the potential to revolutionize our society by improving safety and mobility for all Americans. This committee is advancing the safe testing and deployment of this technology.
As the fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, highlights, safety is and will continue to be paramount. In the Tempe crash, Ms. Elaine Herzberg was tragically struck and killed by an Uber test vehicle while crossing the street. Records show that the vehicle detected Ms. Herzberg’s presence 5.6 seconds before the crash, but failed to brake. It is imperative that manufacturers learn from this incident and prevent similar tragedies from happening again.
Today’s hearing provides an opportunity to discuss how these safety challenges can be addressed while continuing to move forward with this technology. The witnesses should discuss best practices and ongoing efforts to ensure safety, that is a priority during testing.
Recently, the Department of Transportation started to update its processes and regulations through guidance documents, requests for information, grants, and proposed rulemakings. I commend Secretary Chao’s work across modal agencies, including through the Non-traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology or NETT Council, to help federal policy keep pace with innovation.
I invite today’s witnesses to update the committee on the department’s efforts to oversee and regulate AVs and describe next steps in this process. The committee seeks recommendations on how Congress may further support the Department of Transportation’s work on automated vehicles.
These recent efforts are a step in the right direction. But, with AVs already being tested on our roads in more than 34 states, strong federal leadership is required to govern the successful implementation of this technology. This year, the Commerce Committee has restarted its efforts to craft legislation to set a federal regulatory framework governing the safety of AVs. Led by Senators Thune and Peters, this committee is working with the House Energy and Commerce Committee to draft bipartisan, bicameral legislation through a consultative process involving stakeholders. The committees have already received more than 100 letters from industry, state and local governments, and consumer and disability advocates.
Today’s hearing is an opportunity for witnesses to share further information that may instruct Congress’s work on AV legislation. We would like to hear how such legislation would advance AV integration and testing and facilitate deployment of AVs.
As we continue to develop a regulatory framework, the discussion should also be driven by the potential benefits of AVs to improve the country’s transportation systems. According to NHTSA, more than 36,000 people were killed on U.S. roads last year. Ninety-four percent of all traffic crashes are due to human error. Automated technology thus has the potential to save thousands of lives by reducing crashes due to impairment, distraction, fatigue, and more.
In addition to improving safety, AVs represent an opportunity to provide greater mobility to different segments of the population. AV technology could improve transportation for the disabled and the elderly, giving them newfound independence.
As technology continues to improve, AVs will be increasingly part of our daily lives. Therefore, it is up to us to ensure that the safety benefits of these vehicles are fully realized. KPMG found that, while the U.S. is home to the world’s leading AV companies, the US ranks 9th in the world in legislation and policy governing AVs. Without a strong national approach, other countries will have the opportunity to take our place as a leader in this field.
I look forward to a good discussion with the witnesses and my colleagues today as we consider the safe testing and development of automated vehicles.
I now turn to my friend and Ranking Member, Senator Cantwell.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell
Opening Statement before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation entitled, “Highly Automated Vehicles: Federal Perspectives on the Deployment of Safety Technology”
Witnesses: Robert Sumwalt, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board;
Joel Szabat, Acting Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, U.S. Department of Transportation;
Dr. James Owens, Acting Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
November 20, 2019
CANTWELL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for holding this hearing. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Senator Thune and Senator Peters for their longstanding work and coordination on this issue. We’re here today because we want to discuss the issues of technology advancements that we’ve had over the past, such as everything from seatbelts to airbags to electronic stability controls and how it’s helped us.
You mentioned the number of incidents, yet tragically, 36,000 people died on our roadways in 2018. This remains far too many. Today over 90 percent of our roadways fatalities are contributed to human error. There are ways in which technology advancements can have the potential to drive down these numbers. But obviously we have to talk about how these technologies and automation are affecting our vehicles and the importance of the human element process.
Research also consistently shows that drivers disengage from a task of driving when using automated tools. I believe the interaction between humans and technology, particularly this whole area of automation, is one that we know is going to be very much part of the future, but needs a lot more attention.
Over the past three years, more companies have been putting automated vehicles, otherwise known as AVs, out on the road, and sometimes ending in fatal consequences. In several of these accidents, the drivers where not paying attention to the roadway and unable to intervene to avoid the crash. Drivers relied on technology to safely operate as intended, and when the technology failed, the consequences were severe. This pattern with AV technologies cannot continue. So what we need to do is continue to learn from these lessons and make sure that we’re putting safeguards in place.
Just yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing on a fatal crash involving one of Uber’s automated test vehicles. The NTSB noted that Uber made the decision to remove an automated breaking system before testing the AV out on the road, which left the driver as the last line of defense. The drivers inattentiveness led to a pedestrian being struck by this test vehicle. The NTSB highlighted Uber’s poor safety culture, which ultimately led to this unbelievably tragic death. So I want to thank the NTSB for being here today and for your continued work.
Uber has made changes to address the safety culture in response to the NTSB, but I want to make a point that a positive safety culture everywhere is helpful to all of us. Over 80 companies are currently testing automated vehicles on the public roadways, and we need to know that everyone has safety at the forefront of their decisions. We need to know what federal regulators are doing to ensure companies are thoughtful through these testing issues. And as I said, I feel like we as an entity can do a lot more on this human technology interface, and knowing what to do about it and what response times could possibly be.
The National Highway Safety Transportation Administration has voluntary safety assessments as a way for companies to communicate how they are prioritizing safety. However, some of these self-assessments read more like a marketing brochure than critical assessments. Noticeably missing from the list of companies that submitted voluntary assessments were Tesla and Uber, both of which had these fatal incidents.
So I do think it raises a question about what kind of structure we need to have in place to make sure that these safety safeguards are not just voluntary, but have to be met, and that the regulators are playing their role. So Mr. Chairman I look forward to hearing more at the hearing today about these important issues and, again, thank you for our witnesses being here.
Witness Panel 1
The Honorable Robert SumwaltChairmanNational Transportation Safety Board
Dr. James OwensActing AdministratorNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
The Honorable Joel SzabatActing Under Secretary of Transportation for PolicyU.S. Department of Transportation