AV START Bill Hits Opposition from Democratic Lawmakers

Five Democratic Senators voiced opposition to a bill that would clear hurdles for automakers to get thousands of autonomous cars on the road, pointing out the legislation does not address issues with cars that have partial automation.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) were the signatories of the letter, which calls for changes to S. 1885, the “American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act.”

The senators said the bill should also require vehicles with partial automation to be subject to safety evaluation reports, ensuring the limitations and reliability issues with those systems are sufficiently documented.

“We are concerned that the bill indefinitely preempts state and local safety regulations even if federal safety standards are never developed,” the senators wrote.

The letter also references the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) decision to examine the January crash of a Tesla Model S apparently traveling in semi-autonomous mode.

The senators go on to state that until new safety standards are put in place, the interim framework must provide the same level of safety as current standards.

“Self-driving cars should be no more likely to crash than cars currently do, and should provide no less protection to occupants or pedestrians in the event of a crash,” a statement released by Senator Feinstein’s office and signed by the five legislators argued.

In addition, while the bill proposes to study congestion, emissions, and traffic law enforcement at a future date, the senators want the bill to include the development of cybersecurity safeguards, as well as include measures to protect consumer privacy.

Opposition to the bill in its current form comes as various states figure out legislative parameters for autonomous vehicle testing, including Arizona, where Waymo recently won permission from the state to turn its self-driving taxi experiment in Phoenix into a commercial service.

In February, the consumer group Consumer Watchdog sent a letter to the US Senate urging the legislative body to scrap a bill that would streamline regulation for self-driving cars.

The group cited so-called disengagement reports by companies testing autonomous cars in California. Those reports showed how often safety drivers had to take over the cars because their self-driving systems failed or didn’t respond correctly to what was going on around them.

Congress shouldn’t allow self-driving cars on the road if they can’t actually drive themselves yet, the group said.

The 2017 reports from California, which allow autonomous vehicle testing but require companies to report things like accidents and test-driver interventions, showed all companies that tested cars ran into cases where safety drivers had to take over. Twenty companies filed reports.

According to AAA’s annual report on perceptions of self-driving vehicle safety, Americans still appear wary of driving alongside autonomous vehicles.

The report, released in January, found just 13% of US drivers said they would feel safer sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle, while close to half — 46% — said they would actually feel less safe.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209_LR.

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