AV START Is Dead, but Feds Have Given an Inch on Regulation

Legislation setting federal rules for deployment of self-driving cars died as the Senate scrambled to pass critical funding measures before the end of the year, ending more than a year of efforts to regulate a controversial and potentially huge industry.

Time has run out to pass the AV START Act, the companion bill to the Self Drive Act passed in the House of Representatives last year, Sen. John Thune announced on December 19. Thune was the lead sponsor of the bill.

“With Congress turning toward a short-term resolution to fund federal agencies, I don’t see a path for Congress to pass self-driving car legislation this year,” Thune said in an emailed statement late Wednesday evening.

Following November’s midterm elections, a new Congress is going to be seated next year, with the House now under Democratic control.

“I remain committed to working with Sen. [Gary] Peters and other colleagues to find a way forward in the new year and sense that legislation could even possibly move as part of a government funding bill early in the new Congress,” Thune said. Peters, a Michigan Democrat, was a co-sponsor of AV START along with Thune, a Republican from South Dakota.

Among other things, AV START laid out a path for the Department of Transportation to issue large numbers of exemptions from current safety standards for autonomous vehicles. Over the course of several years, manufacturers could have been eligible for tens of thousands of exemptions, allowing for large-scale deployment of AVs. Proponents had hoped to reconcile it with the House legislation after passage.

But those and other provisions, including language concerning the roles of state and local regulators and arbitration clauses affecting harmed consumers, inspired strong opposition to the bill. Several senators imposed holds on AV START earlier this year, stalling it for months. With recent revisions to the bill, backers had tried to resolve these issues, but as recently as Dec. 4, opponent Sen. Dianne Feinstein was still expressing concerns about the legislation.

Automakers and AV startups say uncertainty about federal regulation, amid a patchwork of state and local regulations, has held back investment in self-driving technology and could make it hard to achieve economies of scale. Without large-scale rollouts, it will be hard for US companies to make the economics of the business work and to compete with rivals, especially in China, some in the industry say.

Meanwhile, the federal government did take one small step on December 18 that could make it quicker for self-driving cars to get temporary exemptions to current safety regulations.

Under a new ruling by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is likely to go into effect in a few weeks, the agency will publish AV makers’ petitions for those exemptions before it has certified that the petitions are complete.

This could allow for an earlier start in gathering public comments, a key step in gaining approval for an exemption. Under the rules up to this point, petitions couldn’t go out for public comment until NHTSA had made sure the paperwork was finished.

Purpose-built driverless vehicles are likely to need exemptions to federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) because current rules require features expressly built for human drivers, such as a steering wheel and a brake pedal. New rules that take AVs into account aren’t expected for several years.

The temporary FMVSS exemptions don’t free manufacturers from all responsibility to make their cars safe. In petitioning for the waivers, applicants have to persuade the government either that their cars are essentially as safe as ones that meet the standards or that they have made a good-faith effort to comply with the standards.

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

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