Self-Driving Cars, Advanced Vehicle Technology the Focus at U.S. Senate Committee Hearing

May 16, 2013


The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (“Committee”) held a hearing yesterday, May 15, 2013, entitled “The Road Ahead:  Advanced Vehicle Technology and its Implications.”

Led by Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, the hearing explored the safety benefits, potential risks, and policy implications from the development and implementation of advanced vehicle technologies. These include advanced driver assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping systems, partially and fully self-driving vehicles, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication.  Driver communications and entertainment devices were also discussed.

Focusing on the risks involved in these growing technologies, Senator Rockefeller pointed out in his opening statement that “Automakers seem to be engaged in a race of sorts to see who can add more entertainment and communications devices and features onto the car’s dashboard – all in the name of allowing drivers to remain ‘connected.’  I am not convinced so many of these devices are necessary, and I fear they serve only to further distract drivers.”

Other questions set forth by the hearing agenda included: 

  • As cars become more computerized and electronics-based, can the auto industry make sure they are reliable and prevent failures?
  • As cars become more connected – to the Internet, to wireless networks, with each other, and with our infrastructure – are they at risk of catastrophic cyber-attacks?
  • If driverless cars become reality on our roads, just who exactly is responsible for the accidents that may occur?

In a prepared statement, U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member of the Committee, stated that Congress, regulators, industry and other stakeholders must grapple with questions that will shape the motor vehicle technology landscape in the coming years.  These include:

  • What changes to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, if any, are necessary to ensure that automobile manufactures can safely adopt new technologies and bring them to market?
  • Do the motor vehicle technologies currently in the pipeline present other risks that we should be aware of, including driver distraction, cyber-security and privacy risks?
  • How are product developers working to identify these risks in order to engineer mitigating solutions?
  • Does the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), have the necessary expertise in order to perform its mission properly in this area?

NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland was the first to testify during yesterday’s hearing, but began his remarks with the sobering news that American roadway fatalities have increased by five percent during the past year, marking the first such year-to-year increase since 2005.

The philosophy behind American vehicle safety is metamorphosing from one of “crashworthiness” to “crash avoidance,” he explained.   The NHTSA will continue working on advancements in crashworthiness, such as developing improvements to child safety standards; a new frontal crash test for adults, the elderly, and pedestrians; advancing batteries and other alternative fuel research; and improving the understanding of crash injury and impact mechanisms through advanced biomechanics to develop future crash test dummies and models.

The agency has also been aggressively pursuing many of the emerging technologies that are now deployed on new vehicles.  Its  research on electronic stability control (“ESC”) resulted in a Rule requiring that technology on all new light vehicles since Model Year 2011 be equipped with ESC to help drivers maintain control of their vehicle in conditions where they might otherwise lose control.  Other technologies such as forward crash warning and lane departure warning, both of which help drivers avoid dangerous crash scenarios, are being recognized in NHTSA’s vehicle rating program (the New Car Assessment Program, known as NCAP) to help educate the public about their  life-saving potential. 

According to Mr. Strickland, the NHTSA has the capabilities-and the responsibility-to estimate the effectiveness of these crash avoidance systems without waiting for years of crash data in order to make timelier regulatory decisions sooner.

Last year, the Transportation Research Board reported that, while interconnected electronics systems are creating opportunities to improve vehicle safety and reliability, they are also creating safety and cyber-security risks.  

Click here to read Mr. Strickland’s detailed report on the NHTSA’s  research and efforts to address  challenges presented by crash avoidance systems, advanced braking systems, the various levels of control associated with automated “self-driving” vehicles, vehicle-to-vehicle communications (also known as “V2V”), vehicle cyber-security and portable “connectivity” devices.

Mitch Bainwol, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (“Alliance”), testified as well yesterday on behalf of his organization’s 12 members about their collective efforts to enhance vehicle safety and incorporate related emerging technology.   Alliance members include BMW Group, Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo.   These manufacturers account for roughly three quarters of all vehicles sold in the United States each year.

Mr. Bainwol cited numerous traffic safety statistics, among which indicated that motorcycle deaths account for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities.  He also used the opportunity to urge Senators’ support for requiring the installation of alcohol interlock devices for convicted drunk drivers and related that the Alliance has been working with the NHTSA to research advanced in-vehicle technology called “DADSS” that may help eliminate drunk driving one day.

According to Mr. Bainwol, over 20 different “driver-assist technologies” are available already on today’s vehicles, with more expected.   These technologies are classified as either “intervention,” such as electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes, or “crash avoidance,” which includes “crash imminent braking” and “dynamic brake support.”  To view these technologies in action, click here

According to recent data compiled by the Highway Loss Data Institute, he said, vehicles that brake automatically may offer significant safety benefits.  Their drivers file 15 percent fewer property damage claims and are 33 percent less likely to file claims for crash injuries than the average owners of similar vehicles.

In 2013, additional technologies such as adaptive cruise control with automatic braking and lane centering will become available, marking the advent of future automated vehicles that can actively control or position their distance from other surrounding vehicles.

V2V, he said, has the potential to be a “game changer” for road safety.  According to the NHTSA, connected vehicle technology could potentially benefit approximately 80 percent of crash scenarios involving non-impaired drivers by enhancing or enabling a host of critical crash-avoidance technologies.

He clarified that the term “connected car” in this application meant reducing the potential of crashes by getting information on real-time risk factors outside the vision of the driver – or the electronic eyes of the car.  He also pointed out the difference between V2V and V2I, the latter which is an acronym for the communication of information between vehicles and infrastructure.

Automakers, he explained, view safety, mobility, environment, and road travel convenience applications and functions to be within the connected vehicle scope.  They consider other applications connecting people to people and people to businesses as “telematics” functions.

To spur development and adoption of advanced vehicle technologies, consideration must be given at the federal level to the needed legislative and regulatory framework, since a patchwork of state laws would negatively impact the speed and trajectory of the technologies adopted.

Most challenging, however, will be the resolution of a litany of complex legal issues associated with cars and trucks capable of operating with increasing levels of automation.  These include insurance underwriting and liability issues, since a greater portion of liability may shift from individual vehicle operators and actors to manufacturers and federal and state infrastructure providers.

Public policy “pillars” are necessary to maximize the full value and safety benefits of advanced vehicle technology, Mr. Bainwol said.  To read about these “pillars” in more detail, click here to read his written testimony.

Also testifying yesterday was Dr. Peter Sweatman, Director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, who explained that his perspective is “research, development and deployment.”  

Despite the fact that crash avoidance systems currently in use are beginning to assist drivers by indicating the appropriate avoidance action, ultimately the driver is still totally responsible for taking action to avoid a crash.  What is needed are more incentives and standards for the performance of such systems, as well as independent data that quantifies the effectiveness of these “safety content” features.

At the same time as these advances are being realized, an even-stronger shift is taking place to “infotainment” and telematics in vehicles-particularly the ability to connect and use personal devices in vehicles.  Increasingly, such interfaces may be customized by automakers, providing them with some control over the presentation of content entering the vehicle via personal devices, but not the content itself.  Responsibility for the safety of these in-vehicle transactions with the driver poses an interesting question, he said.  Because a range of manufacturers and service providers combine to produce telematics, a “chain of responsibility” approach is needed for safety.

Until human control of a vehicle is completely replaced by automation, it is essential for manufacturers to incorporate “responsible design,” meaning “smart” interfaces that limit human access.

Mr. Sweatman related that the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute is currently overseeing a model deployment of nearly 3,000 cars, trucks, transit buses, motorcycles and bicycles in Ann Arbor – these vehicles are equipped for standardized and licensed 5.9 GHz Dedicated Short Range Communication (“DSRC”) enabling crash avoidance systems that have been “very promising.”  This project is being sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and carried out in partnership with the automotive and intelligent transportation systems industries, and their technology suppliers.

According to Mr. Sweatman, DSRC technology has the potential to revolutionize the U.S. transportation system.  He urged its full utilization and deployment for all classes of vehicles, as well as at key infrastructure locations (for example, intersections, interchanges and curves).   A national strategy is needed to guide the application of the DSRC 5.9 GHz platform to all vehicle classes and recommended infrastructure locations, thereby benefiting all road users, he added.  Testing also needs to be done to understand how this spectrum can serve to protect vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and bicyclists.  “V2X,” which is essentially the integration of V2V and V2I, also requires a national strategy inclusive of cyber-security considerations, he said.

To read Mr. Sweatman’s complete testimony, click here.

John D. Lee, who serves as Emerson Electric Quality and Productivity Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, outlined to the Committee his critical safety concerns about the “human side” of advanced vehicle technology.

Cars, he said, are becoming rolling computers, some of which can require over 100 million lines of computer code.  Interestingly, he illustrated this by pointing out that vehicle software and electronics account for 40 percent of a car’s cost and 50 percent of warranty claims.

Because these “rolling computers” are taking over important driving operations, drivers are gaining increased freedom to focus on vehicles’ on-board entertainment systems.  Moore’s law, he said, suggests the capacity of automation and entertainment systems will change rapidly, doubling as often as every 18 months.  This exponential increase means that, in 15 years, the conversation is likely to be about whether people should even be allowed to drive-since autonomous vehicles may be much less error prone than people.  Until cars assume complete responsibility for driving, however, the critical challenge is to design vehicles so that drivers clearly understand how the car works and what it can and can’t do. This is particularly challenging because even small design changes can violate drivers’ expectations and confuse them.

Mr. Lee likened automated cars to paper towel dispensers.   “Using a manual paper towel dispenser isn’t confusing,” he said.  “You grab and pull.  Automatic and semi-automatic dispensers can be confusing. Some are motion sensitive and automatically roll out a towel when you wave a hand in front; others require that you press a button to trigger the motor.   Fruitlessly waving at a dispenser before you realize you need to press the button can be embarrassing.  Such confusion in a car can be deadly.”

Rather than offer engineering-based advice, Mr. Lee paraphrased recommendations from the Committee on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration:

1.  Assess whether electronic interfaces, such as push-button ignition systems, can delay drivers’ responses in emergency situations.
2.  Promote government and industry collaboration to create designs that communicate vehicle capability and status to drivers.
3.  Identify when drivers’ expectations of vehicle automation diverge from designers’ intents.
4.  Establish electronic data recorders and associated information infrastructure to catch design errors that will escape even the most thorough design process.

To read Mr. Lee’s complete testimony, click here.

Representing vehicle technology manufacturers, Jeffrey J. Owens, Chief Technology Officer for Delphi Automotive, said his company annually invests approximately $1.6 billion annually into related research and development initiatives.  He described Delphi as a “Tier 1” supplier.

In his testimony, Mr. Owens focused on the concepts of “safe, green and connected” as consumer “megatrends” identified by Delphi as being relevant to drivers and particularly to its original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers. 

He explained the difference between “passive” safety features, such as seat belts, airbags, energy absorbing bumpers, active suspension and occupant detection systems; and “active” features like radars, cameras, and other sensors that can provide a full 360 degrees of sensing coverage around the vehicle.  In addition to warning the driver of potential accidents, active safety systems can also react when drivers cannot, applying vehicle braking or steering automatically to help avoid or reduce the severity of accidents.

Active safety technologies, he said, are the key to reducing roadway accidents, injuries and fatalities.  In fact, a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety states a 31 percent reduction in fatalities is possible with full national deployment of active safety systems, such as Forward Collision Warning with Collision Imminent Braking, Lane Departure Warning and Blind Spot Detection.  This reduction is estimated to amount to a potential savings of over 11,000 U.S. lives per year.

Although the driving public is very interested in buying cars with improved safety features, Mr. Owens related, it is relatively difficult for consumers to decipher the value of various safety technologies.  One of the best consumer tools is the New Car Assessment Program (“NCAP”) – which includes a star rating system on all new vehicle window stickers.

Unfortunately, the NCAP is currently not structured to accommodate active safety vehicle options, Mr. Owens pointed out.   Therefore, Delphi is recommending to the Committee and to the NHTSA that the U.S. amend the NCAP to require the incorporation of star ratings for active safety collision avoidance technology into the window sticker in the future.

A mature technology that has been on the road since 1999, active safety systems are ready to deploy in high volume, Mr. Owens said, resulting in greater consumer awareness and choice, as well as a reduction in accidents and fatalities.  Many of these technologies are commercially available, he said, but relatively few vehicles are equipped with it.  At the current rate of acceptance, it is estimated that active safety technologies will not significantly impact crash statistics for 20 years.

Mr. Owens suggested the enactment of a NCAP star rating for active safety by 2015 that would initially focus on Collision Imminent Braking and Lane Departure Warning systems to help drive consumer awareness and choice, as well as enable technology for future autonomous vehicles.

He also discussed two exclusively Delphi products:  an integrated Radar and Camera System (or RACam) which combines radar sensing, vision sensing and data fusion in a single sophisticated module, and a Rear and Side Detection System that helps make drivers aware of approaching vehicles when changing lanes or making turns.

To view a video replay of the hearing and access all witness testimony, click here.

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