Officials from GM and Toyota testified before the House Energy and Commerce Sub-committee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection last week and told legislators they should ease current federal regulations that restrict autonomous car use on US highways. At present, the U.S. Transportation Department can exempt up to 2,500 vehicles during any 12 month period from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration vehicle rules. Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, told the press last month she is preparing legislation to raise the existing cap. You can tell from the C-SPAN photo that the hearing was a real barn burner.
In addition to GM and Toyota, the presentation included input from Lyft and Volvo took part in the proceedings. “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,” said Mike Abelson, vice president of global strategy at GM, in written testimony released Monday. “It is imperative that manufacturers have the ability to test these vehicles in greater numbers.”
Last Monday, Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, and Senator John Thune, the Republican chairman of the Commerce Committee, said in a joint statement they are exploring legislation that “clears hurdles and advances innovation in self-driving vehicle technology. They hope to jointly sponsor a bill later this year.
Gill Pratt, chief executive of the Toyota Research Institute, told the committee, “It is important that the federal government begin looking beyond testing to deployment of these systems.” He argues that vehicle safety standards should be updated “to address the handful of standards that are inconsistent with or incompatible with autonomous vehicle technology.” Lyft public policy vice president Joseph Okpaku chimed in with this. “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.”
Anders Karrberg, vice president of government affairs for Volvo added that her company’s “Drive Me” pilot program for testing autonomous car technology in Sweden could be extended to the United States if “uncertainty regarding various U.S. state proposals, laws and regulations”could be eliminated.
NHTSA has been generally supportive of self-driving cars with human controls, but believes there are “significant” hurdles to autonomous vehicles that have no steering wheels or brake pedals, such as the Google car. Google has since shuttered its self driving car manufacturing program and shifted much of those resources to a collaboration with Chrysler using the new Pacifica Hybrid minivan as the test bed for self driving systems.
The age of self driving cars is rapidly approaching. There is a certain synergy between autonomous cars and electric vehicles. It is much easier to apply digital controls to an electric motor that to an internal combustion engine coupled to a transmission. For those who wonder when electric cars will go mainstream, the answer may be when self driving cars become widely available. The two technologies go together like bees and honey. Each will drive the other forward into the future of transportation.