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Commentary By Charles Hughes

New Traffic Fatality Data Underscore Need for Autonomous Vehicle Legislation

Economics Regulatory Policy

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology unanimously agreed to send the AV Start Act, to the full Senate. The AV Start Act would create a federal regulatory framework that would supersede state and local regulations that might hinder innovation, while state and local governments would continue to play the primary role in regulating licensing, registration, crash investigation, and congestion management. The bill would speed the rollout of testing and continued innovation of autonomous vehicles. It would create a channel for developers to be granted exemptions from developed safety standards for testing, as long as they prove that the vehicle provides an equal overall safety level.

The House recently passed a similar bill, the SELF DRIVE Act, for regulation and testing of autonomous vehicles. 

The move to autonomous vehicles could save lives. Even as traditional cars have improved over time, the number of traffic fatalities remains stubbornly high, as documented by the new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Almost 37,500 motor vehicle traffic fatalities occurred last year, an 8.4 percent increase over the previous year, the largest increase since 1964. While these figures give a sense of the scale of human loss, they do not control for the amount of miles traveled. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled increased 2.6 percent from 2015 to 2016, and at 1.18 is the highest it has been since 2008. For some time it seemed that continuous improvements in traditional vehicles could continue to attenuate the losses from crash-related incidents, but progress has stalled.

An earlier report from NHTSA estimated that the critical reason for 94 percent of crashes was driver error, compared to 2 percent for problems with vehicles, such as failed brakes. The underlying categories for driver error range from decision errors such as driving too fast, to recognition error, such as driver’s inattention. The high share of incidents attributable to drivers and the substantial number of overall incidents indicate that autonomous vehicles could deliver considerable safety and economic benefits in the years to come.

Moving to autonomous vehicles could save time and increase productivity and convenience for millions of people as they go to work or get their kids from soccer practice. According to one estimate from Deloitte, average cost per passenger mile would fall from about one dollar per mile to thirty cents per mile due to more effective utilization of existing vehicles and related assets. Annual productivity gains in the United States could eventually be in the range of $500 billion, as people would no longer have to their commute time focused on driving.

AV Start would pave the way to realizing some of those gains, but there are provisions that limit the scope of potential gains. Specifically, trucks and all vehicles over 10,000 pounds are excluded from the autonomous vehicle framework. This mirrors the House’s SELF DRIVE Act’s exclusion of commercial motor vehicles, which have the same 10,000 pound weight threshold. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) had introduced an amendment that would remove this weight limit from the AV Start Act legislation, allowing testing to extend to trucks. While he has withdrawn the amendment, he has pledged to continue pushing for the inclusion of commercial vehicles.

Opposition to the inclusion of large trucks in the framework was largely driven by unions such as the Teamsters, and fears about the eventual displacement of truck driving jobs. The Teamsters union supported the 10,000 pound threshold that was included in the House SELF DRIVE Act.

This opposition, and the exemption for large trucks, diminishes the potential benefits that could result from proliferation of autonomous vehicles. Fatalities for occupants of large trucks increased 8.6 percent from 2015 to 2016, the biggest change for any vehicle type. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers recorded the most fatal injuries of any occupation.

In the long-run, it is possible that fully autonomous vehicles could displace some share of these occupations. However, as R Street’s Caleb Watney has written, it is more likely that in the near future the developments in autonomous vehicles will be more akin to driver assistance technology, which would complement human truck drivers and make trucks much safer.

The proliferation of autonomous vehicles, or new developments in driver assistance, could significantly reduce the number and rate of traffic-related fatalities, which have remained stubbornly high despite incremental improvements in traditional cars. The proposed legislation would make it easier for developers to test new technology and speed up the rate of progress in the industry. Truck drivers’ lives matter too, and the bills would be further improved if trucks were included. 

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes

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