Thune Statement on Advanced Vehicle Technology

May 15, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, delivered the following prepared remarks at today’s “The Road Ahead: Advanced Vehicle Technology and Its Implications” hearing:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing as the committee examines a variety of advanced motor vehicle technologies that are now emerging in the marketplace and working their way through the product development pipeline.

These technologies, which include driver-assistance systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and autonomous “self-drive” cars, offer the promise of many future benefits. Advanced driver assistance technologies, such as adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance, and lane-keeping systems, appear to offer obvious safety benefits. In addition, these technologies – many of which are being developed domestically – represent innovations that will help to drive the tech and manufacturing sectors and benefit our economy. 

It is very welcome news to hear the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report that traveling by vehicle has become safer in recent years. According to the agency, fatality and injury rates reached new lows in 2009, compared to 10 years ago. I hope we will continue to improve in this area, and am encouraged by new technologies that offer the promise of an even safer driving experience.

One such advancement is the Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems program, better known as ITS. In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated spectrum in the 5.9 gigahertz band, so that vehicles can someday communicate wirelessly with each other and with their surroundings. This “connected vehicles” technology holds tremendous potential to make driving much, much safer. 

Last year, Congress directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to study whether wireless Wi-Fi devices could share the same 5.9 gigahertz spectrum band as the ITS technology. Expanding Wi-Fi use in the 5 gigahertz range is becoming more important as other Wi-Fi bands have become extremely congested. Advocates of connected vehicles, however, have raised concerns that Wi-Fi use in the 5.9 band will interfere with ITS, which could, in turn, endanger drivers.

While some people have characterized this as two technologies pitted against each other, I instead choose to see this as an opportunity. Connected vehicle technology and increased Wi-Fi bandwidth will each have significant benefits for the public. Obviously, the best possible public policy outcome is if the engineers can find a way for both technologies to co-exist in the 5.9 gigahertz band. The NTIA and the FCC are currently examining whether such spectrum sharing can be accomplished, and we should avoid letting heated rhetoric color this debate while we await the findings of the technical experts.

Americans have long marveled at the notion of an autonomous vehicle – a car that can drive itself. Anyone who has seen the YouTube video of Steve Mahan, a blind man, using Google’s Self-driving car to perform his daily errands around the suburbs of Morgan Hill, California, knows how potentially life-changing these technologies may be. These self-driving cars offer a glimpse into the future. Mr. Chairman, maybe our next hearing on this subject should take place at a test track, so we can more directly explore the vehicle technology of Google and others, which undoubtedly will build upon today’s discussion.

I am pleased that we are joined today by the NHTSA Administrator Strickland. As the federal agency within the Department of Transportation responsible for highway traffic safety and motor vehicle safety standards, NHTSA must partner with industry to make the high-tech cars of the future a reality. In the NHTSA Reauthorization passed last year as part of MAP-21, Congress directed NHTSA to establish a new Council for Electronics and Emerging Technologies to improve the agency’s expertise in the areas being discussed at today’s hearing. I am particularly interested to learn more about the NHTSA’s plan for tackling its mission to ensure safety, while also ensuring that innovation is not stifled. 

The potential benefits of these advanced motor vehicle technologies are remarkable. They should enable advanced safety features, new information services, greater energy efficiency, and reduced insurance risks, and provide a growing market in our economy. 

However, with these advancements Congress, regulators, industry, and other stakeholders must grapple with the forward-looking questions that will shape the motor vehicle technology landscape in the coming years:

What changes to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, if any, are necessary to ensure that automobile manufactures can safely adopt new technologies and bring them to market?

  • Do the motor vehicle technologies currently in the pipeline present other risks that we should be aware of, including driver distraction, cyber security and privacy risks? 
  • And how are product developers working to identify these risks in order to engineer mitigating solutions? 
  • Does NHTSA have the necessary expertise in order to perform properly its mission in this area? 

I know the Committee looks forward to hearing from the witnesses on these issues. Thank you for being here today and for your testimony.