On Nov. 8, 26 labor organizations asked the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a six-page letter to “take immediate action” to “end the unsafe operation of [automated driving system]-equipped vehicles on our roads.”
Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, told Smart Cities Dive that there is a need for federal leadership “as opposed to a patchwork of state and local laws” governing autonomous vehicles. Labor leaders also asked the DOT to update the department’s automated vehicle policy and to “reject the Trump Administration’s hands-off approach to regulating automated vehicles.”
In 2021, NHTSA ordered manufacturers and operators of vehicles equipped with advanced driver assistance systems, such as lane-centering and adaptive cruise control, to report all crashes involving these technologies. The following year, NHTSA reported 367 collisions, including six fatalities, over a 10-month period.
The safety agency has also launched an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system and two separate investigations into Cruise’s self-driving vehicles, which have operated as robotaxis in San Francisco and other cities. Cruise, a General Motors subsidiary, suspended driverless operations across its entire fleet and recalled 950 robotaxis this week for a software update to its automated driving system following an incident where one of its vehicles struck and then dragged a pedestrian under the car for 20 feet before stopping.
“Unfortunately, this horrific tragedy is unsurprising, given the absence of safety regulations for autonomous vehicles,” said Cathy Chase, president at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, in a statement. “It must serve as a blaring alarm to our nation's policymakers to issue federal safety standards and enhance oversight of both operations and data. The safety of the traveling public always must come first and definitely before this rush-to-market approach.”
The San Francisco city attorney has accused robotaxis of creating safety hazards and interfering with first responders, and local transportation authorities have called out the driverless vehicles for obstructing traffic and transit service by making unexpected stops on city streets. Labor unions asked NHTSA to expand its investigations beyond Cruise to other AV manufacturers, such as Waymo and Zoox, and to amend the 2021 standing order for crash reporting to include any incident where an automated vehicle deviates from “expected performance,” such as connectivity issues and situations where vehicles cluster together or require intervention by a remote operator.
While most AVs are currently light-duty passenger vehicles, automated heavy-duty trucks already ply the roads in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. They may soon come to California after Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation in September that would have required a human operator aboard driverless vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds. “You see the real safety problems we have with just passenger vehicles, and then you increase those by an order of magnitude in terms of weight and size, that creates an even bigger problem,” Regan said.
However, the union leader understands that the future will include autonomous vehicles, trucks and buses. “We recognize that people want to be thoughtful and deliberate and fact-based as they look at regulations,” Regan said. “But we are trying to up the urgency here, given the very real safety concerns we're seeing and the limited timeframe we may have left here to actually make an impact.”