It’s no secret that self-driving vehicles are a thing. From trucks to passenger vehicles to middle-mile delivery vans, companies across the transportation industry are doing everything they can to get drivers out of vehicles.
But they can only do so much. Currently, there exists no overarching federal legislation for the regulation of driverless vehicles, with the only framework in place being a patchwork of state-by-state regulations and statutory requirements. That has severely limited their adoption and has largely restricted companies to performing only test runs and demonstrations.
But in a webinar hosted by the Consumer Technology Association on Tuesday, executives from three of the most disruptive companies in the autonomous vehicle (AV) space – Aurora, Reef Technology and Argo AI – talked with Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., about how collaboration between the federal government and AV companies can open American roads up to a safer, more sustainable and hugely profitable industry.
Clarke, who represents New York’s 9th congressional district in Brooklyn, co-founded and co-chairs the Congressional Smart Cities Caucus with Issa. “We have always aimed to use our caucus as a means of connecting lawmakers with the smart technology ecosystem that is constantly rethinking and reshaping the ways in which our communities function,” she said.
“As I’ve watched this ecosystem grow and evolve over the past decade, it has become clear to me that zero-emissions autonomous vehicles are going to play a critical role in our future smart transportation systems, helping to make mobility around cities like Brooklyn more accessible, efficient and safe for both riders and pedestrians alike.”
Issa, who represents a district in San Diego County, said, “Smart cities of the future are going to be more than just infrastructure in the city. They’re going to be the smart cars that operate the charging stations, the autonomous vehicles that move people around.
“Congresswoman Clark and I really want to continue to be informed and be a conduit for all the members of Congress to get educated and to be prepared to provide the kind of legislative changes that facilitate the smart cities of the future.”
After remarks from the representatives, the company executives took the floor to share policy changes they’d like to see happen. Melissa Froelich, vice president of government relations and public affairs at Aurora, kicked things off by talking about the disconnect between policymakers at different levels of government.
“There’s an exemption process at NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]. But there’s also the FMVSS [Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards],” Froelich explained. “And you do start bumping into those places where you have one exemption being granted but others are still in the works.”
Aurora’s main offering is its Aurora Driver technology, which enables self-driving capabilities across vehicle types, from vintage cars to contemporary passenger vehicles to trucks. Recently, the company held its first investor and analyst days, during which it demonstrated its Aurora Driver on Interstate 45.
Andrew Woelfling, director of public policy and government relations for Argo AI, echoed Froelich’s sentiment, arguing that collaboration among all levels of government is needed for driverless vehicles to truly take off. Like Aurora, Argo AI is developing self-driving system technology, and the company leverages two key relationships: a delivery partnership with Walmart (NYSE: WMT) and a rideshare partnership with Lyft (NASDAQ: LYFT).
“Each of us develops technology in partnership with other entities,” Woelfling said. “We develop our business use case in partnership with other entities. And I think that that is also true of how good policy should be made, whether it’s the federal, whether it’s the state or whether it’s the local level.”
Brandon Pollak, head of federal and EMEA government affairs at Reef, also agreed, emphasizing that collaboration could enable the delivery of essential goods, like food and health care, to underserved communities. His company focuses on the growth of AVs in neighborhoods and has over 4,000 real estate locations across the country, many of them ghost kitchens, from which it delivers.
“What we really need is this connectivity between the federal government and cities – that’s where the infrastructure bill becomes so critical,” said Pollak. “The federal government can play a key role in developing proper frameworks that are going to allow AVs to be deployed in so many different ways.”
In her introductory statement, Clarke touched on several pieces of legislation that could increase collaboration and accelerate the adoption of AVs, placing particular emphasis on President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better agenda and her own Smart Technologies for Accessible and Resilient Transportation (START) Act.
“The Build Back Better agenda includes once-in-a-generation investments that will finally take our communities out of the Stone Age and into the 21st century, with unprecedented funding for public transportation, clean energy, broadband deployment, affordable housing and so much more,” she said. “These investments are critical not only for fixing our crumbling roads and bridges but also for laying down the groundwork that will enable smart technologies like autonomous vehicles to thrive.”
Clarke also recently reintroduced an updated version of her proposed START Act, which would allocate more federal funding toward smart projects, create an initiative whereby the government awards annual grants to communities that implement those projects and establish a federal smart community resource center – that last component even made its way into the text of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the JOBS Act.
That sort of legislation will be necessary for the U.S. to compete in the driverless vehicle space on the global stage. As it stands, European countries have the leg up, led by Germany and its legislation that aims to get AVs on public roads by 2022.
“Germany is the first country in the world to do it,” said Woelfling, “and what’s interesting about this development is that, given how tightly knit the European Union is, what Germany has done has in fact forced the conversation at the European level, such that the European Commission is now looking at revising Europe-wide type approval regulations.”
According to Woelfling, the governments of France, Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom are looking at adopting similar legislation that would get self-driving cars out to the public within one or two years. For the U.S. to really break into the driverless vehicle market, the federal government will have to follow suit.
“It would be extremely helpful, at least for this industry, to facilitate the deployment of autonomous vehicles on public roads in the United States by ultimately revising FMVSS to account for a lack of a human driver,” explained Woelfling, “but also by providing a bridge mechanism whereby those vehicles could be deployed and potentially provide the information that NHTSA would need to set the standards – which would facilitate the deployment.”
Legislation regulating AVs is still a bit of a taboo for the U.S., but if the country can get it right, Froelich, Pollak and Woelfling are all-in on the promise of driverless vehicle technology. For all three of them, driver safety is the most important opportunity that AVs can address.
“We’ve accepted as a society, unfortunately, that we lose almost 40,000 Americans on our roads every year, and it’s not acceptable,” said Froelich. “We should be doing everything possible that we can to drive down that number.”
Woelfling agreed, emphasizing that safety is the most important benefit, but he also pointed out that there could be a massive economic boon as well. The Regional Industrial Development Corp. of Pittsburgh, where Woelfling’s company Argo AI is headquartered and conducts much of its testing, put out a study that illustrated the economic benefits of AVs in the region.
“Just in the last year, the autonomous vehicle industry has created 6,500 jobs in the Pittsburgh region and generated $650 million in labor income, $35 million in local and state tax and over $127 million in state tax. That’s just from the autonomous vehicle industry, which is sort of nascent in Pittsburgh. That study shows that by 2026, our industry could be a trillion dollar global industry.”
Not only can self-driving vehicles be a driver for increased safety and economic growth, but also for sustainability efforts. Pollak saw this firsthand when he visited Yellowstone National Park over the summer and witnessed the park’s autonomous shuttle system taking cars off the roads.
“I was there just after they had launched the TEDDY program, their driverless shuttles in the Canyon Village area,” he recounted. “Just think about how much less CO2 would be emitted per year, especially in a place like that, where you have upwards of 5 million visitors a year. Just look at our cities across the country and how our environment could be really transformed.”
According to the panelists, the time is now for the U.S. to take the lead on driverless vehicles. The technology exists, and the benefits are apparent – all that’s left to do now is wait for the country’s leadership to chart the path toward adoption.
“This is an opportunity to lead,” said Woelfling. “This is a seminal moment in technological and safety development. The time is right, and the iron is hot. So let’s strike it.”