Recent Op-Eds

An American Transportation Revolution

By Sen. John Thune

May 28, 2021

From the beginning, the story of the U.S. auto industry has been one of ingenuity, of taking risks and of pushing forward. At the dawn of the twentieth century, most Americans could hardly comprehend the idea of the automobile. Yet twenty years later they had become nearly ubiquitous in American life, thanks to the insistence of entrepreneurs like Henry Ford on making the automobile affordable for the majority of Americans. 

Automobiles allowed Americans to capitalize on the economic dynamism of the Roaring Twenties, and they helped Americans move and adapt during the Great Depression. They contributed greatly to the American industrial base and the know-how needed to fight and win the Second World War, and they helped propel the United States to its current status as a preeminent global economic and military power.

Visionary investments like the Interstate Highway System made cars a staple in American economic and cultural life. And cars certainly made it a lot easier to get to and from rural America. In a place like rural South Dakota, with limited public transportation, the automobile – often a pickup or an SUV – is typically the only way we get around.

Today the automobile industry stands on the brink of a new technological revolution, which promises to dramatically transform mobility once again.

Over the past three decades, the internet has transformed our economy and our way of life. And the next generation of the internet – 5G, which is currently being deployed across the nation – will enable a host of new innovations, including a revolution in vehicle technology: automated vehicles, or AVs.

AVs will change the way we move in numerous ways, making the transportation system safer, more efficient, and more accessible. Individuals whose mobility is currently limited – for example, Americans with disabilities – could gain new independence with the deployment of automated vehicles, allowing them to work or visit friends and family safely and easily. Or imagine a farmer in rural South Dakota who can no longer drive to get to town for appointments, prescriptions, or groceries. Access to an AV would provide an opportunity for folks to stay living on their farms as they age, or allow new freedom to those living with a disability.

For automated vehicle technology to advance, it is imperative that the regulatory framework catch up with private-sector innovation. That’s why I’ve spent nearly five years working in a bipartisan manner on a legislative framework to govern the testing and deployment of AVs.

In the Senate, I recently introduced an amendment that I had hoped to be able to offer with bipartisan support. It would have paved the way for expanded testing and deployment of automated vehicles in the United States, under the oversight of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. My amendment, which is supported by the National Federation of the Blind, among other organizations,  would have ensured that automated vehicles would not touch pavement without the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s certification that they are at least as safe as a conventional vehicle. 

Unfortunately, bipartisan agreement on my proposal collapsed when special interests expressed their opposition. And I’m deeply disappointed that once again Democrats yielded to pressure from special interests against the best interests of our economy and the American people.  

Advancing AV technology is not just a vehicle safety issue. It’s also an issue of U.S. leadership and global competitiveness. 

More than a century ago, when the automobile was invented, there were plenty of skeptics. But America’s automobile pioneers didn’t let that stop them. They seized the moment and pressed forward and ushered in a transportation revolution. We can do that again today. Or we can cede this moment to nations like China and let the American automobile industry fall permanently behind. I hope we’ll choose to seize this moment and pass the legislation we need to usher in another American transportation revolution.