by Dave Schwietert
From the Editor: Following Kyle Vogt, President Riccobono introduced the next speaker: “We’re going to stick with the theme of autonomous vehicles. This organization is not new to us, but you may not know this presenter. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has been a longtime partner of the National Federation of the Blind, and as we have gotten beyond talking about quiet cars into talking about autonomous vehicles and our role in it, one of our primary policy partners for us has been the Alliance. You have heard from the president of the Alliance in previous years, but this gentleman has been with the Alliance but not as president. Now he’s serving as interim president. He’s been one of the chief policy folks at the Alliance helping us to line up the stakeholder conversations to keep the blind in the center of the autonomous vehicle conversation. On behalf of the Alliance here to talk with us is Dave Schwietert” [The Beatles’ “Drive My Car” plays as he approaches the microphone]:
Thank you so much, Mark. You know, I really like the theme music. I testified before Congress a few weeks ago, and I’m going to have to ask about whether we can do something like that. [laughter] My name is Dave Schwietert, I’m the interim president and CEO of the auto alliance, America’s leading advocacy group for the auto industry. We represent iconic companies and nameplates that you’re familiar with that run the gamut from Ford, General Motors, Fiat/Chrysler, Toyota, BMW, Jaguar/Land Rover, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Volkswagen, and of course Volvo. Our organization is based in Washington, DC, but we also have offices in Michigan and California, and I want to thank the NFB for inviting me to join you this afternoon, especially since I was able to leave the high humidity of Washington, DC.
Today I really want to share with you what is happening in Congress and the administration regarding autonomous and self-driving vehicles, what’s happening in the states, and why our shared mission to move autonomous vehicles forward is so important. Before I walk through the remarkable innovations that auto manufacturers are committed to, including the remarkable work that Kyle Vogt and the entire team at Cruise are doing, I want to personally thank President Riccobono, members of the board, and NFB’s amazing staff for your very warm welcome. Without question we are witnessing the most profound transformations in the auto sector our nation has ever experienced. The inclusion of amazing technology is not only revolutionizing transportation today, but also improving our lives, expanding options for the traveling public, and having a positive impact on the environment.
For the past decade the auto alliance and NFB have formed a productive and uniquely strong relationship. This partnership between the nation’s foremost advocacy group for the blind and the leading association of auto manufacturers has yielded tangible progress. To be candid, the faster the pace of change the better. Working together we can accelerate the enormous benefits that innovations offer for everyone. For the past few years our collective work with the Coalition for Future Mobility, a pioneering network of forty-two members that has brought advocacy groups, associations, manufacturers, and technology companies in the fight to speed up the deployment of self-driving automotive technologies both in Washington, DC, and with federal agencies such as the US Department of Transportation. Throughout the coalition the auto alliance, NFB, and others continue to push for the creation of a regulatory framework by Congress that will respect state authorities, but most importantly provide a pathway that will give automakers and other stakeholders much-needed clarity to help develop fully self-driving and autonomous vehicles. Last Congress this partnership was effective in advocating passage of key legislation, the SELF DRIVE Act, which was unanimously approved by the US House of Representatives. Unfortunately the momentum to get legislation signed into law last Congress came up a little short, even with the related AV START Act being approved by voice vote in the Senate. Although our efforts faced unexpected resistance from trial lawyers and other special interests who fear changes in mobility, we’re still committed to seeing Congress pass legislation that will create national rules facilitating the deployment and testing of self-driving cars. Until such federal legislation is signed into law there will be uncertainty for automakers and other stakeholders due to the patchwork of different state laws that will delay important investments and innovations from being commercialized.
The NFB has been an invaluable partner in this mission for the simple reason that self-driving technology has promised to yield a huge improvement when it comes to the mobility of persons who are blind across the United States. [applause] One key provision in the Senate AV [autonomous vehicle] bill last Congress was a stipulation that states cannot deny access to self-driving vehicles, including people who are blind. [applause] It’s a tremendously important provision, and together we’re committed to pushing for action in Congress, and I’m optimistic that this common sense approach will eventually become law. But outside of Congress there’s other positive efforts that are being made, including in the US Department of Transportation. Under Secretary Elaine Chao’s leadership, the department continues to evaluate and make necessary changes to vehicle regulations, including other modes of transportation such as trucking and aerial drones to spur the development of new technologies. When it comes to advocating the benefits of self-driving vehicle technologies, I remember a profound statement that President Mark Riccobono expressed at an event with the Department of Transportation roughly a year and half ago, and I quote, “The deployment of self-driving vehicles will remove the artificial barriers of the past that have hindered mobility and accessibility for the blind and push toward a future in which sightedness does not determine mobility.” [applause]
In recognition of our ongoing partnership and the NFB’s pioneering push toward a self-driving future, the auto alliance has organized a three-part workshop this year regarding automotive vehicles and increased accessibility. The second workshop is actually scheduled for next week in Washington, and so far the feedback has been very positive, not only from auto manufacturers but also from other key stakeholders including the NFB who have participated in the workshop series. To give due credit, the idea for the alliance to host this workshop series actually originated from a related self-driving vehicles accessibility conference that the NFB hosted at its offices in 2017. The conference focused not only on the benefits to NFB members but the needs of roughly 57 million Americans with disabilities. [applause]
Over the past few years I’ve been thrilled to watch how our partnership has strengthened. Important trust was forged with collaboration on the quiet car rule, which mandated that sound be added to electric vehicles so that people who are blind can hear when these vehicles are approaching. So far I’ve explained a little bit about where we’ve come the last few years, but the key question is what we can do together to spur important regulatory and legislative changes to realize the benefits that are just around the corner when it comes to expanding mobility. When it comes to automotive safety, as Kyle noted earlier, it’s astounding that our nation has accepted the fact that roughly 37,000 people perish on our roadways each year. That’s roughly 90 percent of crashes that are directly related to human error. That fatality rate breaks down to an astounding figure of roughly 100 lives that are lost each and every day. Although the three largest causes of this human error are speeding, drunk driving, and a lack of seatbelt use, automakers have made tremendous progress in recent years not only to make vehicles stronger and to protect occupants, but also with technologies that are being added to vehicles. I’m excited to say that we are now starting to see a reduction in the number of crashes or preventing crashes from happening altogether due to these critical safety technologies. The reason I point to these transformative safety improvements that continue to be added to new automobiles is because these technologies, including blind spot warning, lane centering, adaptive cruise control, auto parking, and automatic emergency braking are the building blocks to fully self-driving vehicles. In effect these technologies that are available today are the gateway to expanded freedom of mobility for all Americans but especially NFB members.
I’m regularly asked how long this change or transformation to fully self-driving vehicles will take. While I don’t have a crystal ball, the change is coming faster than many individuals think. While certain auto manufacturers and other stakeholders have made public announcements about when they would like to deploy self-driving vehicles on a large-scale, I certainly expect that within a few decades autonomous driving vehicles are likely to be commonplace on our roads and not just in large cities.
Self-driving vehicles, enabled by cutting-edge sensors can travel faster, closer together, thereby cutting commute times, easing congestion, saving fuel costs, and further reducing emissions. They can free occupants to focus on other tasks in the vehicle, enhancing freedom and productivity and perhaps, most importantly, self-driving cars will help to reduce the 90 percent fatalities tied to human error that I mentioned earlier. [applause] For your membership, however, the impact of self-driving cars will be even more powerful and transformative. Mobility in most of the United States depends on driving or having access to a vehicle. Unfortunately those who are unable to drive or afford a vehicle have less opportunities for employment, and education options are diminished. Many people who are blind are forced to rely on ridesharing services or taxis or depend on inefficient public transportation and paratransit providers. In rural areas like South Dakota where I grew up, options are even more limited or nonexistent, and this reduced mobility is a major factor contributing to the high rate of unemployment among the blind. My members, auto manufacturers, want to help solve this problem. We are approaching a future in which every blind or visually impaired person can own, operate, or use self-driving vehicles, offering seamless point-to-point services through voice-operated self-driving technology. [applause] The simple ability to commute by car to work, school, doctor’s appointments, restaurants, or cultural opportunities is often taken for granted, but together we can work to change that and expand mobility as we know it today.
This transformation has already begun. Nearly all major auto companies are hard at work creating the autonomous vehicles of the future, and self-driving technologies like park assist, lane correction, and automatic braking are becoming standard features in many vehicles. The question that I pose to all of you today is how fast do you want to expand mobility and for that to happen? In my experience, having worked in Washington, DC, for over twenty years, there are two kinds of politicians. The first are those who are cautious to a fault, who hesitate to allow the new innovations out of fear of their consequences. They are more concerned about how things have been done in the past than how they will be done in the future. They prefer the status quo versus innovation and disruption. Perfection is the standard they demand regardless if that precludes access or opportunity for key segments of our nation. The second type of politicians are those who embrace the future, who foster the next generation of solutions and welcome transformative change. I suspect to me and you, these are the leaders who share our collective vision for self-driving technologies. The questions around autonomous vehicles are now more political than technological. Some states have chosen to lead in this new frontier, allowing manufacturers room to test new technologies. They have eliminated fees and barriers to self-driving vehicles. Other states have opted to go the other way, taxing self-driving vehicles and restricting their operation out of fear. Developments in Washington, DC, and in state capitals will determine which approach wins out. The alliance will always push for innovative progress and safety, but we can’t do it without your voice and support. The NFB, as I have mentioned, has been an invaluable partner in this push for standardization, a forward-looking national framework for self-driving vehicles, and those who are blind have too much at stake to allow trepidation and fear to impede progress toward a future that provides mobility for all. We can’t slam the brakes on progress; we won’t. This is a battle we will fight and one that we will win. Your passion and direct involvement can make a difference.
I want to close with this call to action for each of you. Make your voices heard across the country but especially in Washington. Our joint call to action should be to reject the status quo and demand that politicians explain to each and every one of you what they are doing to expand mobility and ensuring that regulations aren’t holding back key safety innovations. Your voice and involvement are critical to make it known that self-driving vehicles will revolutionize the way you live your lives, and dare any politician to deny that simple urge for free movement. No more excuses! Let’s work to pass critical self-driving legislation into law that liberates mobility. The future is in our hands; we need only to reach out and take it. I’m proud to say that our nation’s automakers will fight this fight with you every step of the way. [applause]
Thank you so much for inviting me to join your conference today, and I very much look forward to working with all of you on this journey.