EPW Hearing Statement: Innovation and America’s Infrastructure: Examining the Effects of Emerging Autonomous Technologies on America’s Roads and Bridges

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing, “Innovation and America’s Infrastructure: Examining the Effects of Emerging Autonomous Technologies on America’s Roads and Bridges.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“Thank you Mr. Chairman for having this important hearing. President Harry Truman once said ‘The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.’ Today we are here to discuss autonomous vehicles, which do seem to be a very new thing. But over 100 years ago, before the advent of ‘driverless cars,’ the new thing was the ‘horseless carriage,’ or what we now just call ‘cars.’ Reflecting on the early history of cars may provide some lessons as we plan for the deployment of today’s new technology.

“I doubt there is anyone who would deny the tremendous benefits the development of cars has had on our society and our economy. Automobiles connected urban and rural communities. They provided new access to schools, jobs, and hospitals.  Cars and trucks have allowed us to travel farther and to ship and receive goods more quickly and cheaply. But it’s also fair to acknowledge that these mobility improvements also came with some costs.  We had to make space in urban areas, often at the cost of existing housing, for better infrastructure in the form of roads and highways. Motor vehicles quickly became a major source of emissions and smog, contributing to the threat of climate change as well as public health crises such as asthma.

“The advent of early automobiles also posed a major safety challenge, and new infrastructure was required to ensure that they operated more safely.  In the first decade of the 20th century, there were no stop signs, no warning signs, no traffic lights and no lane lines.  There were no street lights, no brake lights, no driver’s licenses, no seat belts and no posted speed limits.  None of these traffic controls and safety devices had been developed in advance, so communities were unprepared for this new technology and, as a result, passengers were put at risk. In 1910, there were 45 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. We have been able to bring that number down to just about one death per 100 million miles traveled today thanks to Federal motor vehicle safety standards and investments in safer roadways. I think most of us would agree that number is still too high though. In 2016, nearly 38,000 people were killed in crashes on U.S. roads.

“I hope that autonomous vehicles will help us reduce fatality rates even further. Over 90 percent of traffic fatalities are a result of driver-related errors, including from drunk, drowsy, and distracted driving, which may be reduced with driverless cars.   Indeed, there is no doubt that this emerging technology has the potential to enhance safety and mobility, reduce congestion, and improve access. But realizing these benefits will depend on two important things: how the technology is deployed and also how much we invest to ensure that our streets are ready for this new technology.

“One of our major goals should be to avoid the mistakes of the last century when cars were deployed into our communities without any of the infrastructure standards, traffic devices, safety protocols, and environmental protections that we only later realized were essential. Our hearing today will help us to better understand how we can prepare for this transformative technology so that we can realize its many potential benefits, but also minimize the costs associated with cutting corners in our zeal to see this exciting technology deployed. We need to better understand the readiness of our infrastructure and our traffic controls. For instance, we know that autonomous vehicles can have difficulty navigating certain road conditions, such as poor lighting, bad weather, and work zones. How do we mitigate these challenges? Connected autonomous vehicles may travel more closely together, which could reduce congestion. But how will a connected series of heavy trucks affect the weight limits of highway bridges?

“Road designs and traffic signs have been optimized for human comprehension; however, look at the very simple changes that can be made to a stop sign that could interfere with an autonomous vehicle’s ability to accurately understand that same sign. How do we ensure that vehicle computers will read them correctly, particularly when graffiti or other modifications can fool an autonomous vehicle into thinking that a stop sign is actually a speed limit sign. We may need to digitally connect our vehicles to our infrastructure. How much will that cost, and how do we ensure it is compatible with all autonomous vehicle technologies?

“Finally, technology is changing at a rapid pace, but state and local agencies must plan now for transportation investments that won’t be made until much further down the road. How do we align those timeframes and integrate assumptions about autonomous vehicles into long-range transportation plans?

“These are just a few of the many questions that I believe we should be examining closely as we prepare our infrastructure for more widespread use of autonomous vehicles. I look forward to the testimony and answers that our witnesses will provide to these, and other, important questions.”