US Driverless Bills ‘Running Out of Time’

Proponents of a bill intended to kickstart US autonomous vehicle development are stepping up pressure to get it passed but lawmakers seem to be as divided as ever.

The House of Representatives passed a bill last September that would set up a framework for ensuring AVs are safe and put federal regulators on a path toward crafting new vehicle safety standards for them but a similar bill in the Senate has been stalled for months.

Last week, advocates of the Senate’s AV START Act renewed calls for its passage by citing the one-year anniversary of the House passing the SELF-DRIVE Act. If the act is approved, the two bills will be reconciled. The Trump Administration has signaled that the president would sign the resulting bill into law.

Sponsors of the House bill held a press conference in front of the Capitol on the anniversary of its passage and called on the Senate to approve AV START before the end of the legislative year so it can be reconciled with the House bill. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other Democrats have placed holds on the bill, preventing it from moving toward passage.

Backers say federal legislation is critical to encourage companies to develop and test AVs more aggressively. “Time is running out,” said Rep. Bob Latta, a Republican from Ohio. “If we don’t get started and make sure we get it done in this country, the United States is going to lose that innovation edge and we’re going to see it being developed somewhere else.” Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, expects the House to adjourn by early October before the November midterm elections.

The aim of both bills is to help companies develop and deploy the next generation of vehicles while ensuring they are safe. Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) assume a human driver, and crafting new rules specifically for driverless cars is expected to take years. So in place of conventional safety reviews, the two bills call for manufacturers to issue their own safety assessments until FMVSS have been updated.

AV START would allow companies to produce increasing numbers of self-driving vehicles exempt from FMVSS, using the makers’ safety assessments to evaluate the cars. For example, after an exemption has been in place for four years, the manufacturer could petition the Department of Transportation to allow production of as many as 80,000 units of a model in a 12-month period.

One purpose of the legislation is to prevent individual states from imposing their own rules about what makes an AV safe to operate, which might frustrate companies that want to produce the vehicles in volume and make them available across the country. Under AV START, federal AV law would pre-empt state rules during an interim period.

Ford, which recently submitted its voluntary safety self-assessment with the DOT, says it wants clarity. “What is still lacking is a strong federal framework that supports the near and long-term development and safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. The AV START Act contemplates precisely that framework,” Ford Autonomous Vehicles CEO Sherif Marakby wrote in an open letter to key proponents of the bill.

Opponents say exemptions should be more limited and there should be a time limit on pre-empting state and local regulations. Blumenthal and four other Democratic senators raised these issues, as well as cybersecurity and consumer privacy protections, in a March 14 letter to AV START sponsors. “We are concerned that the bill indefinitely pre-empts state and local safety regulations even if federal safety standards are never developed,” the senators said.

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

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *