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Testimony & Letters

Testimony before the District of Columbia City Council

Testimony of Ariel Wolf on behalf of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets

Committee on Transportation and the Environment

Council of the District of Columbia

July 2, 2019

Councilmember Cheh and Members of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, my name is Ariel Wolf, and I am a Counsel in the regulatory practice at Venable LLP.  I also serve as Counsel to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (“Coalition”). Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify today on B23-232, the Autonomous Vehicles Testing Program Amendment Act of 2019, and B23-248, the Autonomous Vehicle Amendment Act of 2019.

Today I will provide some background on the Coalition and U.S. DOT’s approach to regulating autonomous vehicles, and our recommendations in light of the District’s efforts to provide a path forward for the testing and use of these vehicles. The Coalition previously submitted a letter and model legislative text to this Committee in advance of the roundtable held on January 31, 2019, entitled “The Integration of Automated Vehicles in the District,” and we direct the Members of this Committee to that submission for additional information supplementing my testimony today. We look forward to continuing to be constructive participants in the legislative process. 

The Coalition was founded in April of 2016 by Ford Motor Company, Waymo (formerly Google’s self-driving car project), Lyft, Uber, and the Volvo Car Group.  We are focused on enabling the development and deployment of fully autonomous vehicles (“AVs”). This cross-section of companies representing technology, automobile manufacturing, and transportation network companies demonstrates the widespread interest in developing AV technology across different sectors.  Despite their different backgrounds, the companies came together to form the Coalition because of their commitment to bring the tremendous potential safety and mobility benefits of self-driving cars to consumers in a safe and swift manner.

The Coalition strongly believes that fully autonomous vehicles have the potential to advance the personal safety of passengers and other roadway users.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) estimates that more than 37,000 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes last year. More frustrating is that we have seen an upward trend in fatalities in the past 5 years after observing significant reductions prior to that.  An estimated 90 percent of all crashes are in some way linked to human error (whether driving drunk, distracted, fatigued, or at excess speeds). Fully autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce fatal traffic crashes because they remove human error from the driving process entirely.  

Self-driving cars also hold tremendous promise to transform mobility for the millions of Americans who are excluded from traditional transportation options, including members of the disabled or elderly communities. This technology could help broaden economic participation and support greater independence.

In light of this great promise, it is perhaps no surprise that states and the federal government have taken an acute interest in utilizing their respective authorities to craft a regulatory environment that helps facilitate the safe and expeditious deployment of autonomous vehicle technology: the states by regulating vehicle operations, and the federal government by exercising its exclusive authority over vehicle design, construction, and performance.  

As a threshold matter, it is our view that if the District chooses to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to AVs, such action should remove impediments to the safe testing and deployment of AVs, create a pro-competitive environment and a level playing field for the emerging AV industry, and focus on rules-of-the-road. More than a dozen states have taken this balanced approach to the testing and deployment of AVs in their jurisdictions.

The federal government also plays an important role consistent with its Congressional mandate to establish a uniform, national approach on vehicle design safety.  The U.S. DOT has issued multiple guidance documents charting a particular path toward validating safe autonomous technology. DOT has affirmed that its enforcement authority extends to AV technology, and it has also expressed the affirmative determination that certain aspects of the regulatory environment should remain fluid while this critical technology continues to take shape.

To that end, we are grateful for the Committee's interest in establishing a policy framework to improve safety and mobility, as well as to facilitate innovation. We would like to work with the Committee moving forward on areas of concern, several of which are as follows.

B23-232, the Autonomous Vehicles Testing Program Amendment Act of 2019

B23-248, the Autonomous Vehicle Amendment Act of 2019

Our comments on specific provisions of the bill are below, but first we wanted to make two threshold points. First, we strongly support this bill’s endorsement of a path to commercial deployment of AVs. For companies like our members, the massive investments in testing in a new jurisdiction are only viable if coupled with a realistic path towards eventual commercial, driverless deployment. We are pleased that this legislation reflects this reality and that the District is poised to move in this direction.  

At the same time, while we are supportive of the approach this bill would take, we want to highlight several provisions that would hinder the safe deployment of AV technology and therefore impede the goal of the bill. For example, the bill does not clearly authorize the deployment of fully driverless vehicles (including through shared fleets, available through digital-dispatch); it would impose a certification model that departs from the traditional motor vehicle model; it would create liability and insurance requirements that are neither needed nor useful to assure redress for injuries; and other items that we describe in further detail below. 

Conclusion

The Coalition appreciates the opportunity to share our views on these bills and on the testing and deployment of fully autonomous vehicles in the District. We look forward to continued collaboration with you on reasonable policies that support safety and innovation moving forward. 

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