Opinion

We Can’t Delay a Federal Policy on Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving vehicles will dramatically reduce traffic accidents and fatalities, saving hundreds of thousands of lives – but we can’t get there without leadership from the federal government. While the Department of Transportation has taken the initiative to provide guidance on self-driving technologies, Congress must act to keep the United States at the forefront of SDV development. In 2016, more than 37,000 Americans died due to auto accidents. The cost is too high to wait any longer to act.

Not only can we save lives by passing legislation, we can also improve them. According to Securing America’s Future Energy, self-driving vehicles could lead to nearly $800 billion in annual social and economic benefits by 2050, including saving on the cost of vehicle accidents and environmental benefits. The Ruderman Family Foundation predicts we could gain $1.3 trillion due to lowered costs from accidents and gas and growth in productivity. And the technology could empower seniors to travel and workers with disabilities to return to the job, making our nation not merely a safer place, but also a more productive place.

Today’s vehicle safety laws are woefully out of date and inhibit this lifesaving technology. Updating vehicle safety standards will take a lot of time, research and testing – a process that, if allowed to, can easily take 10 years. Slow government and burdensome regulation are often the death knell for innovation, and in the case of self-driving vehicles it comes with a higher cost: thousands of preventable road deaths. We can’t afford to wait years for government to catch up to technology. We need a flexible and responsible process in place as we continue to develop advanced driving systems.

Fortunately, Congress started this process early last year, with the House and Senate each introducing legislation. The House passed the SELF DRIVE Act a year ago, and the Senate Commerce Committee passed the AV START Act unanimously in November. Both bills include essential provisions for wide-scale testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles.

This legislation is the first step, a building block in establishing a more adaptable vehicle safety code that can keep up with technological advancements. And while issues will continue to arise as we develop and learn, inaction is not an answer to hard questions. We’ll need time and experience to inform intelligent decision-making, but we can’t do nothing at all for fear we left something out.

As we’ve waited for the full Senate to act on AV START, industry continues to innovate – but tech companies and automakers are getting to the limits of what they can do without legislation. We need many of the provisions in the bill in order to get vehicles tested and on the road. We need clarification of the role of the federal and state governments to prevent a patchwork of conflicting state laws. We need a comprehensive approach to maintain our status as the technology leader of the world and keep development of self-driving technology here at home.

Congress has started down the right road with these two bills. Now they just need to finish the task. Through industry partnerships and transparent dialogue, we can harness self-driving cars to lift our nation to a new level of safety, prosperity and equality.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, “Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses” and “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.” His views are his own.

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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misstated the name of Securing America’s Future Energy.