Senators Seek Answers on Safety of Self-Driving Cars

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The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the safety of self-driving cars. The goal of the hearing was to determine the federal government’s role in ensuring autonomous technology continues to progress while keeping the public safe.

  • The Senate held hearings to discuss the safety of self-driving cars.
  • A panel of experts testified on the challenges of educating the public about how these systems work
  • The hearings also addressed how to best regulate testing of new technologies.

The hearing came the day after the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings in a fatal crash in Arizona involving a self-driving Uber test vehicle that struck a pedestrian crossing the street. The NTSB uncovered multiple issues. It cited an inattentive driver as the main factor in the crash along with the lack of a second operator and an automated driving system that didn’t react to the pedestrian.

Nissan ProPilot Assist
Nissan ProPilot Assist offers driver assistance yet still requires a human at the wheel paying attention. (Photo: Nissan)

Not Truly Self-Driving, Yet.

Concerns over crashes like the one in Arizona are what prompted the Senate hearings to determine how implementation of self-driving cars should proceed. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt provided testimony and cited the Arizona crash as an example of why more oversight is needed.

He pointed to the importance of recognizing that the cars testing on public roads are not fully self-driving vehicles. The Society of Automotive Engineers has a six-level classification system for a self-driving vehicle’s capability. Systems like Tesla Autopilot, Nissan ProPilot Assist, and Volvo Pilot Assist are considered SAE Level Two. These are partial self-driving systems that still require a human driver who is ready to take over in an emergency.

It’s at this stage that the NTSB believes greater oversight is required. A lack of federal standards has led some states to institute their own requirements for these technologies. According to Sumwalt’s testimony, 29 states have drafted official policies creating a lack of consistency in what’s allowed on public roads.

Acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration James Owens shared similar concerns about making sure the public understands that self-driving technologies still require an attentive human driver. Whether it’s a test vehicle or a production vehicle, the industry is still in the early stages of developing this technology.

Current NHTSA regulations require equipment like steering wheels and pedals in all cars, even those testing self-driving technologies. Those cars must meet the same safety standards as production vehicles, which Owen cited as one of the ways NHTSA is helping ensure testing is safe. Despite these measures, he acknowledged the process is one that requires continual monitoring as the technology progresses.

Regulations are necessary, but too many could stifle innovation. (Photo: Getty Images)

How much regulation is too much?

Joel Szabat, acting under secretary for policy, Department of Transportation, also provided testimony. His opening statement included a focus on the need for the many organizations involved to work together toward the common goal of public safety.

Senators questioned the witnesses about the challenges of regulating self-driving cars and the dangers of the public not fully understanding the limitations of existing technology. Senator Ed Markey went so far as to demand NHTSA take Tesla Autopilot off the road until Tesla comes up with a way to address potential misuse by drivers.

Owens, however, cautioned that too much regulation could stifle innovation. Those developing this technology agree. According to CNBC, both General Motors and Waymo encouraged federal regulators to allow testing of self-driving cars without driver controls like steering wheels and foot pedals. Lyft called for a unique classification for these vehicles and separate regulations.

The results of the hearing showed agreement over the need to educate the public on how self-driving features function and to ensure the testing of new technologies is done with safety in mind. What is unclear is exactly how the federal government plans to ensure that safety.


Self-driving cars will continue to populate our roads. The technology is progressing at a rapid pace and the public needs to fully understand the limitations of what’s currently available. At the same time, testing needs to allow for both continued innovation while ensuring public safety. Determining how to regulate these vehicles is something that needs to be addressed now, not years down the road.

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