The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on June 13, 2018, discussing how the country should prepare for the impact of self-driving cars. The hearing delved into the effects of self-driving cars on American road infrastructure, including broadband and safety measures.
Points of Concern for Self-Driving Cars
Senator Shelley Moore Capito asked how self-driving technology would apply to rural areas where broadband is often spotty. She mentioned that she would not trust a self-driving car operating in the sharp twists and turns in her hometown in West Virginia.
Another concern was the security of these driverless vehicles. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts wanted to discuss cyberattacks as this is critical in protecting the privacy of passengers.
Fatalities related to self-driving cars were at the center of controversy earlier this year. In March, Uber was testing a self-driving car that struck and killed a pedestrian in Phoenix, Arizona. Later that month, a Tesla on autopilot crashed onto a roadside barrier and caught fire in California, killing the driver.
Director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation William Panos said his state is leading the way in testing connection technology for autonomous vehicles. Wyoming is implementing a pilot program using dedicated short-range communications technology that connects to infrastructure and other vehicles.
Senator Tom Carper of Delaware pointed out that self-driving cars can read traffic signs incorrectly. Defaced road signs can easily trick autonomous vehicles, interfering with navigation and speed, and therefore compromising road safety.
The Human Element
Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, mentioned that the lawmakers should keep the 4.4 million professional American drivers in mind. While disruptive technology has benefits, the federal government must ensure that innovations do not upset the American labor force.
In 2016, there were 37,461 road-related deaths in the US; and pedestrian deaths also rose to 9% that year. This was according to Shailen Bhatt, President and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. She also noted that human error causes 90% of road accidents. She is hopeful that the statistics will help develop safer and more accurate technologies for passengers and pedestrians.
While the senate committee mostly discussed urban driving, universities like the MIT and the Michigan Technological University are conducting their own research. They are exploring the sociological, economical, and technological impact of self-driving cars in rural communities. They understand that rural communities have been overlooked by technological advancements and wouldn’t want them to feel any more alienated. Interviews with locals showed that they are apprehensive but also excited.
MTU is researching on the environmental impacts such as land use, specifically on how self-driving cars can navigate unmarked roads; reduced fuel consumption; and reduced collisions with wildlife through AI. MTU is using discussions with locals to rethink safety and transportation access, especially for senior citizens and students in rural communities.
Meanwhile, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has developed a method for autonomous vehicles. These cars navigate country roads with minimal visual clues such as traffic signs, lane markers, and streetlights. They noted that 65% of US roads do not provide lane markings, and a third of US roads are unpaved. The new technology called CSAIL’s MapLite uses a combination of GPS and lidar, increasing cars’ awareness of its surroundings.
Challenges Ahead for Autonomous Vehicles
Lawmakers are pausing on the regulation of autonomous vehicles until there are changes that address the safety of the public. Senators say self-driving cars are still an emerging and unproven technology. The industry has to have specific provisions to ensure the driverless cars navigate accurately and safely. They must also physically protect their passengers and their privacy, as well as those of pedestrians.
Experts are willing to discuss with those who oppose driverless cars in urban and rural America to expand the conversation. Other countries have successfully started testing on autonomous vehicles, and so should the US. They are keen on engaging in a dialogue to address all their questions and concerns, and ultimately support the progress of the legislation.