New Smart Transportation Calls for Federal Regulation

(Photo by Daniel Abadia on Unsplash)

September 5 at 5:00 p.m

WASHINGTON — Congress must change its approach to regulating the nation’s transportation as innovative transportation technologies like self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AV’s), develop at a rapid pace, said industry leaders testifying before a House subcommittee Wednesday.

Public-private partnerships to reduce traffic, streamline freight shipments and connect citizens to wider transportation networks are already underway in states like Ohio, California, and even in rural parts of Iowa, witnesses said.

“We used to talk about moving cars,” said Shailen P. Bhatt, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “And now, I think it’s about moving people and data and freight.” Bhatt testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Bhatt said that Congress must develop federal standards to ensure safety and promote equal access to new transportation systems. Congress is currently reviewing the The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which funds the U.S. Department of Transportation through 2020.

Many U.S. roads, highways and bridges have already been stretched their limits by  population growth and increased freight volume, said Jim Barna, Executive director of DriveOhio, an Ohio Department of Transportation initiative to develop and integrate smart technologies into the state’s transportation system. “We can’t build our way out of congestion anymore,” he said.

DriveOhio helps car companies, academic researchers, and state agencies pursue government-funded projects. Examples include installing wireless roadside sensors that communicate with cars and freight trucks, and developing free, low-speed AV shuttle busses in urban areas.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) said that public-private partnerships must emphasize equal access for those who lack access to existing transit systems. Many of her constituents, she said, can’t afford cars, reside in rural areas, and live with physical disabilities. “We have to talk about these systems not as a ‘Silicon Valley fun-to-have,’ but as a “need-to-have,” she said.

A program in Iowa that connects rural citizens to an on-demand shuttle service via smartphone app is one example of how innovations can promote transportation equity, Julia Castillo, executive director of the Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency, told the panel.

Federal legislation to regulate new transportation technologies will require input from multiple committees, not just those that oversee transportation, said Representative Esty in an interview after the hearing. Smart transportation systems depend in large part on interstate wireless connectivity, which would fall under the jurisdiction of communications committees in the House and Senate and the Federal Communications Commission.

“It shows how these issues are not just [about] safety,” which typically the main concern of  the House Transportation Committee, she said, adding that a smooth and equitable transition to smart transportation systems will require a higher degree of communication between regulatory bodies. “It’s going to be an interesting time, because different states have different receptivity to these ideas,” she said.

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