President Biden’s nominee to head the nation’s auto safety agency, Dr. Steven Cliff, testified before the U.S. Senate Thursday, and emphasized the importance of educating drivers on the dangers of risky driving. He highlighted how technological innovations can help to improve safety on our roadways and pledged to turn around recent increases in highway fatalities.

I appreciate his commitment to saving lives, and one area where the federal government can start is by eliminating obstacles to the safe and rapid deployment of new safety technologies. The cars and trucks that consumers are buying today are the safest vehicles ever built. Even so, more than 20,000 Americans died in vehicle crashes in the first half of this year, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates. That’s an increase of 18 percent over last year, and the evidence shows that driver behavior – drivers who are impaired, unbelted, speeding, or driving recklessly – are big factors in the recent increase in roadway fatalities.

Those facts make it all the more important for us to eliminate regulatory and other roadblocks that may be delaying or stifling innovations that hold great promise to improve road safety. As Mark Rosekind, former NHTSA Administrator under President Obama, put it recently during the Alliance for Automotive Innovation’s Autos 2050® Summit, “If we really want to make a difference here, technology is the tool.”

Many of these issues surface in discussions about automated vehicles (AVs), where a tremendous amount of research and development is being conducted. Auto Innovators has offered an AV policy roadmap that includes fourteen specific recommendations aimed at allowing AV deployments at scale, harmonizing all levels of government (state, federal and international), and establishing industry standards and safety assurances for the longer term. Fourteen trade associations joined Auto Innovators in a September letter urging the Department of Transportation to establish such a federal framework for AVs to help achieve a “safer, more environmentally friendly and accessible transportation future.”

One key recommendation that could be acted upon quickly by the next NHTSA Administrator is the establishment of a focused pilot program that includes federal oversight, increases public awareness and experience with these technologies and gives NHTSA the key data it needs to develop new safety regulations for AVs, particularly for AVs with innovative designs. 

Innovative technologies that can make a difference have already been developed or are well on the way to being made commercially available. Automakers are working with NHTSA to develop systems that can detect (and prevent) drunk driving. Vehicles sold today include various aspects of increased automation, such as automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assists, and adaptive cruise controls that are already saving lives. In addition, Auto Innovators has publicly released Driver Monitoring Principles which reiterate the importance of effective driver monitoring in partially automated vehicles to help ensure that drivers are awake, alert, and paying attention to the road.   

The U.S. is among many nations racing to be the first to develop and bring these new AV safety technologies to market. The winners of this competition will gain clear advantages in market position and in writing the rules of the game – which is one more reason why there’s no time to waste to improve the regulatory landscape to bolster research, testing, and public adoption of these important safety features.