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Congress revs up debate over self-driving cars

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Congress is revving up debate over the regulation that will be necessary for self-driving cars for the first time under President Donald Trump.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will convene a panel on Tuesday to discuss the “road to deployment” that will include representatives from General Motors, Volvo, Toyota and Lyft.

Additionally, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, is partnering with Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, to launch “a joint effort to explore legislation that clears hurdles and advances innovation in self-driving vehicle technology.”

The flurry of activity relating to self-driving cars is taking place for the first time since Trump took office with a pledge to drastically reduce the number of regulations that are imposed by the federal government.

Mike Abelson, vice president of global strategy at GM, is planning to invoke the death of a GM employee’s son in a traffic accident to demonstrate the need for Congress to clear the way for self-driving cars.

“One of our colleagues, Steve Kiefer, experienced an incredible tragedy last September,” Abelson will say, according to testimony that has been posted on the panel’s website. “His son was returning to college after a weekend at home when he was hit by a distracted driver and killed instantly. Watching our friend and colleague experience such an avoidable and irreplaceable loss gave the technology that we will discuss today an even deeper purpose.”

The testimony continues: “But, unfortunately, Steve is not alone ... 10 percent of vehicle fatalities and 18 percent of injuries in crashes are due to distracted driving. More than 30 percent of fatalities involve a drunk driver, and 28 percent of fatal crashes were speed-related. Vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of death for children and adults ages 4 to 34.

“With 94 percent of fatal crashes caused by human behavior, there is tremendous potential in deploying technology that can do much better,” the testimony reads. “Self-driving cars won’t drive while impaired by drugs or alcohol, they won’t be distracted by a cell phone, they won’t drive drowsy or recklessly, and their speed will be limited to that of the local laws and conditions.”

Trump has said little about advanced automotive technology. Newly confirmed Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has promised to give automakers space to develop the technology that will be used to power self-driving cars in the future.

“Innovation and creativity is a hallmark of America,” she said during her confirmation hearing in January. “We are now seeing the advent of autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, smart cars and also drones. While the benefits are very much known, there are also concerns about how they will continue to develop and I will work with this committee and the Congress to address many of these concerns, but we need to do so in a way that will not dampen the basic creativity and innovation of our country.”

Abelson plans to tell lawmakers that current federal regulations for motor vehicles are not equipped to regulate an environment where cars drives themselves, noting that current rules assume there will always be a human driver present in vehicles.

“To truly realize the benefits of this opportunity, we have to ensure public policies and regulations match the rapidly changing pace of innovation that this technology has demonstrated,” he will say.

“Current (federal regulations) have served the motoring public well for years,” he will continue. “However as technology has evolved, standards, which take years to develop, have lagged behind. As we have seen in many other industries of rapid technological change, the pace of regulation has not kept pace with rapid innovation...Without changes to those regulations, it may be years before the promise of today’s technology can be realized and thousands of preventable deaths that could have been avoided will happen.

Anders Karrberg, vice president government affairs for Volvo, plans to tell lawmakers that her company agrees.

“(Volvo) believes autonomous vehicles are an incredible opportunity to redesign the concept of personal mobility and to improve traffic safety,” she will say. “So it is critical that policymakers have a legislative framework ready, before the technology arrives on the market.”

Karrberg will add: “Congress and NHTSA should encourage and start by building confidence in crash avoidance technologies. These features which include systems that assist the driver or automatically act in order to prevent or mitigate crashes (such as automatic emergency braking systems, lane-departure warning systems, pedestrian detection and braking systems) are the precursors for self-driving cars.”

Joseph Okpaku, vice president of government relations for Lyft, meanwhile, plans to tell lawmakers the ride-hailing company plans to launch a pilot self-driving car in a major city in 2017.

“Lyft stands at the center of this coming transportation revolution, as we believe that the transition to an autonomous future will not occur primarily through individually-owned cars,” he said in written testimony. “Rather, it will be both more practical and appealing to rely on autonomous vehicles when they are part of Lyft’s networked fleet.

“To this end, Lyft has been working both on its own and with trusted partners, such as General Motors, to test and validate the safe performance and operation of (autonomous vehicle) technology, most recently in California and Arizona,” the testimony continues. “It is our goal to operate a pilot in a major city this year that will permit consumers to enjoy, for the first time, a Lyft in an autonomous vehicle.”

Sens. Peters and Thune cited the rapid development of prototype self-driving cars as they pledged to work together to ensure that federal regulations are keeping up with the pace of technology.

“More than any other automotive technology in history, self-driving vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce the more than 35,000 lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around,” the senators said in a joint statement.

“As we seek to identify areas where Congress should assist innovators in bringing this new technology to our roads, we will work closely with our colleagues, interested safety and mobility advocates, and other leaders in automated vehicle technology to find solutions that enable the safe testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles and assure public confidence,” the senators continued. “We both recognize that public policy must adapt to this new, rapidly-changing technology to ensure the federal government maintains safety while leaving room for innovators to reach their full potential.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing