Rockefeller Highlights Safety Benefits of Advanced Technologies in Vehicles

May 15, 2013

JDR waving reportWASHINGTON, D.C. -- Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV today gave opening remarks at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing titled "The Road Ahead: Advanced Vehicle Technology and Its Implications." Below are his prepared remarks:

The story of modern America would be difficult to tell without the automobile.  Ever since the Model T first rolled off the assembly line, the car and its driver have shaped our history, our lives, and our imagination.  It was the automobile, after all, that brought forth Detroit’s rise and the “golden age” of manufacturing.  It gave Americans a newfound sense of independence and freedom.  It changed, quite literally, our country’s landscape.  The car has been a defining ingredient in modern American culture.

The automobile has also been central to the story of America’s innovation in public safety standards.  Seatbelts, brake lights, and airbags have saved innumerable lives that were once needlessly lost.  Today, the cars on our roads are safer than ever, but we still have a long way to go.  More than 30,000 lives are lost each year on America’s roads and highways – most from crashes caused by driver error.  Automakers, regulators, and researchers must continue their pursuit of safer vehicles and fewer fatalities, especially at the hands of driver distraction, impairment, or poor judgment.  In recent years, we have seen advances in vehicle technology that show great potential – not only to save the lives of many more but also to revolutionize how we have come to understand the relationship between the driver and his car.

Driver-assist technology has already found its way into some of today’s cars.  Electronic stability control, for example, prevents rollover accidents and is now installed in all new cars, saving hundreds of lives per year.  The latest sensors, cameras, and software are doing even more to assist drivers.  They can warn the person behind the wheel of an imminent crash.  If the driver doesn’t respond, the car will stop itself.  They can warn drivers if the vehicle is drifting into another lane, and can even automatically bring the car back to its proper place.  Another system knows when the driver’s eyes wander off the road, and can alert him back to the task at hand.

The power of technology is already saving lives.  But looking ahead a bit farther down the road, the car’s future is even more incredible.  Advanced technologies currently under research and development could radically challenge our notion of what it means to be behind the wheel.  One of these technologies enables vehicles to communicate with each other and with the road, warning drivers of dangers ahead that they have no way to see.  Another technology, of course, is one all of us have heard about – the self-driving car that could take you safely from point A to point B with no human involvement.

There is much to be excited about as these technologies further develop.  They show potential to decrease the number of tragedies on our roads in the coming decades.  But there are risks, as well as important questions we must consider today to pave the way for tomorrow.  One growing technology raises concerns for me.  Automakers seem to be engaged in a race of sorts to see who can add more entertainment and communications devices and features onto the car’s dashboard – all in the name of allowing drivers to remain “connected.”  I am not convinced so many of these devices are necessary, and I fear they serve only to further distract drivers. 

Even those technologies with great potential safety benefits come with their risks.  As our cars become more computerized and electronics-based, can the industry make sure they are reliable and prevent failures?  And as our cars become more connected – to the Internet, to wireless networks, with each other, and with our infrastructure – are they at risk of catastrophic cyberattacks?  And if driverless cars become reality on our roads, just who exactly is responsible for the accidents that may occur?

We have seen so much change in the automobile and at such a rapid clip.  It is exciting and promising, but it requires a safety regulator that is attentive, knowledgeable, and conducts vigorous oversight.  This hearing will provide us an overview of what the future holds for our cars.  It will give us a foundation for future legislation and for future industry oversight as we move forward.  If they deliver as promised, the technologies we are discussing today have the potential to revolutionize transportation and bring about dramatic improvements in safety.