Automated and Self-Driving Vehicles: The Life-Saving Technology that could Revolutionize Our Transportation System

Sen. Susan M. Collins
Nov. 28, 2016

Cars that drive themselves and avoid accidents. Seniors and disabled individuals able to retain or gain their ability to get around town in autonomous vehicles. At first, it sounds like science fiction or an advance far off in the future. But this technology is being tested and perfected right now, and it could save thousands of lives.

As Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, I recently held a hearing to examine the role of government in enhancing roadway safety through the careful deployment of automated and self-driving vehicles, which could revolutionize our transportation system. Following the release by the U.S. Department of Transportation in late September of a new federal policy to guide the development and deployment of this new generation of motor vehicles, our hearing, with a panel of expert witnesses, focused on how automakers could bring the safety and mobility benefits of autonomous vehicles into the marketplace without unnecessary government regulations stifling innovation.

More than 35,000 lives were lost in crashes on U.S. roadways in 2015, and preliminary estimates indicate that there was a 10 percent increase in roadway fatalities in the first half of 2016. More than 90 percent of roadway crashes are the result of human factors, or simply put, driver error, such as distracted driving, impaired driving, and speeding. The testing and safe deployment of automated vehicle technologies have the potential to reduce substantially this number of preventable driver-related crashes and fatalities. If the technology were perfected, automated vehicles could eliminate many of the crashes on our nation’s roadways and save thousands of lives every year.

In addition, self-driving vehicles can provide mobility options to our seniors and disabled populations, particularly those living in rural communities like here in Maine, where too many of our older drivers currently do not have an easy way to get to the doctor or to the grocery store. Public transportation is nonexistent in much of Maine, and taxi service is very limited in rural areas.

Seniors who can no longer drive often have very few options. A self-driving car, or even one with limited automated features, could help seniors feel more comfortable driving at night and could help those who currently must rely on others to get around to maintain their independence.

While fully self-driving autonomous vehicles are still years away from being available to the general public, many new vehicles already have driver-assist features such as automatic emergency breaking, rearview cameras, and lane-keep assist systems. These technologies are already saving lives and reducing injuries on our roadways. Further, one of our witnesses stated that, by reducing congestion and aggressive driving, self-driving vehicles could save time and fuel while improving air quality.

Automated vehicle technology is advancing faster than government agencies can act, and impeding innovation may prevent us from saving lives. The Department of Transportation’s new policy begins to address that issue with a voluntary 15-point “safety assessment” that incentivizes automakers to certify they have addressed all relevant issues ranging from cybersecurity, to human-machine interface, to ethical considerations.

From Ford and Tesla to Google and Uber, automated and self-driving vehicle technology is advancing rapidly. Given the public’s keen interest in these vehicles, the federal, state, and local governments must take a balanced approach in allowing for their research, development, and deployment. It is particularly important that federal agencies work with state and local governments, as well as manufacturers and technology companies, to ensure that this transportation revolution advances both safety and the spirit of innovation that could literally save lives.