September 13, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Norton Statements from Hearing on the Future of Automated Vehicles

Washington, D.C.—The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) during today’s hearing titled, “The Future of Automated Commercial Motor Vehicles: Impacts on Society, the Supply Chain, and U.S. Economic Leadership.”

Video of Larsen and Norton’s opening statements are here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chair Crawford and Ranking Member Norton, for holding this hearing.

Today’s hearing is an opportunity for Members to learn more about the state of the automated commercial motor vehicle industry—what’s happening now, what we might see in the future, and how these technological changes will impact public safety, jobs and the movement of goods.

The T&I Committee regularly discusses the impacts of automation across many modes and in different contexts.

Autonomous commercial vehicles (AVs), however, are in a league of their own in terms of potential impact. Consideration of policy surrounding this technology deserves a high degree of scrutiny for several reasons:

  • The size and reach of this industry: trucks move over 70% of the nation's freight by weight, and there are 13.8 million large trucks registered in the U.S.;
  • The size of the workforce: in 2022, the industry employed 3.5 million truck drivers;
  • The interface with travelers and communities: every mile and every hour of a truck’s operation is on shared public roads used by families including highways, rural roads, and neighborhood streets; and
  • The safety realities of this industry: every year currently over 5,000 people are killed in crashes involving large trucks on our roads. 

Let’s start with safety first. In 2021, 5,788 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks.

Non-drivers are particularly vulnerable in roadway crashes—pedestrian fatalities have reached a 41-year high, and bicyclist fatalities have a 46-year high.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about the safety implications of AVs. While these vehicles hold the promise of reducing driver errors, like distraction or driving under the influence, they also raise different and new safety questions.

How will AVs make split-second decisions on the roadway? Will they be able to recognize and avoid vulnerable road users? Will the people who program and develop AVs be able to program and develop them to ensure that trucks recognize and avoid vulnerable road users? Can they interact safely with emergency vehicles like police cruisers or fire trucks? These outcomes will have life-or-death implications.  

While the status quo on highway fatalities is unacceptable, AVs must be held to the highest safety standards as they are developed and deployed. We can’t substitute one inadequate system for another.

Next let’s look at jobs. I often talk about transportation as a job-creator, including how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) is projected to create over 700,000 jobs per year.

While autonomous trucks may create new or different jobs, with human drivers overseeing or dispatching AVs, their mass deployment stands to eliminate jobs or degrade wages for the existing truck drivers.

Commercial AVs are not limited to trucks. Transit bus operators also face job losses or changes if a human driver becomes unnecessary.

AV technology has the potential to make truck driving a better job by helping shift more work to safer, more predictable jobs in short-haul routes or dispatching.

But AVs can also threaten a career choice that has long been a path to the middle class and a good paycheck.

I encourage our industry witnesses to work closely with truck drivers, including labor and independent owner-operators, to hear their concerns and harness their real-world experience to make sure the power of this technology builds a safer, cleaner motor carrier industry with better jobs for the women and men who move goods.

Finally, let’s look at the practical impacts. AVs have the potential to improve mobility and accessibility.

But they could also worsen congestion and carbon pollution. In a world in which cars and trucks could operate without drivers, it is not hard to imagine that gridlock and pollution could come alongside a nascent technology. Unlike a smartphone, this isn’t a case where we can put technology out there and work out the kinks as we go along.

There are also implications for our infrastructure. Roadway conditions vary road by road, state by state, and day by day with the changing weather.

Technology and those who develop it need to ensure consistency and uniformity to perform as expected regardless of everyday conditions. As AVs deploy, we may learn quickly the required changes to signage, lane striping, or even roadway design that are needed for them to perform optimally. 

This is an issue of particular importance to this Committee, and a key question that will need answers as we look to the next round of investment in the revitalization of our roads and bridges.

A lot of questions, some of them are probably easily answerable, some probably not.

I look forward to hearing more about the state of the industry today and learning from our witnesses about how to best approach these opportunities and challenges.      

Ranking Member Norton:
I would like to thank Subcommittee Chair Rick Crawford for holding this hearing on autonomous vehicles. 

Today, I am interested in discussing the effects of autonomous vehicles on roadway safety and the commercial driving workforce.  This Committee has a responsibility to ensure that, as autonomous vehicles are deployed, the highest possible safety standards are met and that Americans have access to high-quality, family-wage transportation jobs. 

Automated vehicles, including commercial trucks and transit buses, are already on the road in many jurisdictions across the country and have the potential of transforming our transportation system. We must thoughtfully address the emerging opportunities and risks. 

Nationwide, we are experiencing a startling rise in roadway fatalities. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to save lives by reducing traffic crashes caused by human behavior, but that potential is not a guarantee. Potential safety benefits must be carefully weighed against risks, especially when public roads are being used as testing grounds for new technologies. The bottom line cannot be saving money—it must be saving lives. 

To that end, Congress and the Department of Transportation must ensure that autonomous vehicle deployments are only permitted in a manner that prioritizes the safety of the traveling public, including vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. 

Autonomous vehicles must also be integrated into our transportation system in a manner that respects America’s commercial driving workforce. Autonomous vehicles could significantly improve working conditions for commercial drivers and increase on-the-job safety. But eliminating the need for a human driver could also result in widespread job displacement if the needs of workers are not prioritized at the outset. 

Commercial truck driving is a proven career path that offers a wage that can support a family.  These jobs do not require a college degree. They are an opportunity for people to achieve high earnings without going into debt. 

Comprehensive regulations and oversight of autonomous vehicle deployment will be required to create and preserve high-quality, family-wage jobs and good working conditions for Americans whose livelihoods depend on driving. 

Thank you to each of our witnesses for being here today and offering your unique insights. I look forward to the discussion.