AV START Fueling Fight Over How Much Power to Give Washington

The AV START Act, a bill that might put hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles on public roads, is hung up in the US Senate partly because of a fierce debate over federal versus state and local regulation.

Some municipal officials are worried that AV START could prevent cities from keeping their streets safe by making them powerless to ban AVs they consider unsafe. The bill’s supporters say it won’t do that.

AV START was introduced last year after the House of Representatives passed a similar bill, the SELF DRIVE Act. Both are intended to accelerate self-driving vehicle development by setting up uniform, nationwide regulations and a path to approval for more AVs to travel on public roads. Several Democratic senators have raised objections to AV START over issues including pre-emption, leaving it stalled as the clock ticks toward Congressional elections and the end of this legislative session.

One of the most contentious questions about the bill is how much power it would give Washington to control the introduction of vehicles that might reshape city streets. Critics claim it allows federal regulations to pre-empt rules that cities and states impose on AVs.

“The idea that I would not be able to prevent a vehicle that I know to be unsafe from operating on our streets is literally terrifying,” Jennifer Cohen, director of government affairs at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said last week at the Transpogroup Autonomous Vehicles Policy Conference in Los Angeles. “If we know that a vehicle consistently fails to stop at a stop sign, yet we have lost our ability to outlaw that, that should terrify everyone,” Cohen said.

Autonomous vehicles upend the traditional understanding of how cars and drivers are regulated in the US. Today, the federal government makes sure cars are built to be safe. States license drivers and register vehicles, and cities control movement on the streets. Because robotic cars are driven by software instead of a licensed driver, the lines between vehicle and driver safety are shifting.

Backers of AV START counter those notions, pointing out that the fears of local officials like Cohen are unfounded.

“Under legislation passed in committee, states and localities would still have the authority to enforce their local traffic laws or ban all self-driving vehicles from operating in their jurisdiction should they so decide,” Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee, told TU Automotive.

Cohen points to a section of the bill that says no state or local entity may “adopt, maintain or enforce any law, rule, or standard regulating the design, construction, or performance of a highly automated vehicle or automated driving system” in areas that include system safety, crash-worthiness, post-crash behavior and automation function.

In a report on the bill last year, the Commerce Committee clarified that “performance” meant the same thing it did in earlier safety regulations and wasn’t being expanded to include aspects such as complying with traffic laws. Cohen is worried that courts will interpret the law differently.

“This bill could radically restrict state and local regulation,” University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith told TU Automotive. Even if the lawmakers who wrote the bill don’t want it to take power away from cities and states, the fact that many reasonable people think it does should give them pause, he said.

AV START is designed to prevent individual cities and states from defining how AV models are built and how the software that controls them is written, said Greg Rogers, director of government affairs and mobility innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy, an organization that supports the bill. For AVs to be adopted, they will need to be able to go from coast to coast without getting a new operating permit for every state and city, he said.

Vehicle regulation has always been a partnership and will continue to be, Rogers said.

“Nothing is going to stop a city from pulling over an AV and giving an AV a citation if it is violating a law,” he said.

If opposing sides can’t come together on this, US companies might lose out as rivals in China, Germany and Sweden gain ground in AVs, said Doug Newcomb, president of transportation consultancy C3 Group. “Other countries are moving ahead a lot faster,” he said.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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