Uber Driverless-Vehicle Accident Complicates Push to Ease Rules
Bill in Congress that would speed the cars’ development is likely to face more hurdles
By John D. McKinnon, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 20, 2018
WASHINGTON—This week’s pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car is likely to complicate efforts in Congress to speed the vehicles’ development by wiping away state safety regulations.
The House last fall passed legislation that would pre-empt regulations that some states have sought to impose on the driverless-car industry recently. The bill would also exempt driverless cars from many federal safety-equipment standards, to accommodate new designs. Instead, the bill would have regulators rely on safety certifications from the manufacturers.
The industry has said the federal legislation is vital to preventing a patchwork of state and local safety regulations from blocking innovation. The technology’s backers have argued it should be fast-tracked because of its potential to ultimately save thousands of lives, as well as the need to stay ahead of competitors in Europe and Asia.
The House passed it by voice vote in September, and it was unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee soon after.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), one of the bill’s main sponsors, said in a statement Monday that the pedestrian fatality in Tempe, Ariz., reflected the need for Congress to delineate standards for the nascent industry.
“We won’t have all the facts until relevant investigations are complete, but this tragedy underscores the need to adopt laws and policies tailored for self-driving vehicles,” he said. “Congress should act to update rules, direct manufactures to address safety requirements, and enhance the technical expertise of regulators.”
But even before the pedestrian was struck late Sunday, some senators had reservations about the bill, saying they were concerned that it didn’t guarantee sufficient protections for drivers, passengers and pedestrians, particularly given the lack of federal safety regulations so far.
“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,” five Democratic senators wrote last week to the bill’s main sponsors. The five were Dianne Feinstein of California, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
After Sunday’s accident in Arizona, which involved a self-driving car from Uber Technologies Inc., Ms. Feinstein suggested lawmakers have been moving too quickly. “My heart goes out to the family of the woman killed by a self-driving car in Arizona,” she said. “It’s an issue that Congress needs to carefully examine and see that the safety of driverless vehicles is ensured. I do not believe this examination has been carefully carried out thus far.”
Such criticism could dim the bill’s prospects, particularly because the looming midterm elections could make congressional leaders more risk-averse in bringing legislation to the floor. Some Democrats have lent their support to the measure, including Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, a co-sponsor, but the measure would need the support of several other Democrats to clear the chamber’s procedural hurdles.
As recently as last week, Uber urged senators to take quick action on the bill to help U.S. companies win the global race to build the vehicles.
“Fully self-driving technology…will help prevent tragedies on our roads,” Uber wrote in a letter, joined by Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo unit. “While the U.S. has always led the world in innovation, other countries across Europe and Asia are also investing in this opportunity. We must not fall behind.”
Uber on Monday said it was temporarily pulling its self-driving cars off the roads in four cities where it is testing them, including Tempe, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto. The accident in Tempe was believed to be the first pedestrian death resulting from a driverless vehicle.
The legislation’s provision to pre-empt state and local regulation of autonomous vehicles is based on the theory that it is the federal government’s job to regulate vehicle safety equipment. But opponents say the bill also would do little to speed up adoption of new federal safety standards for autonomous vehicles, which could take many years to develop.
Further complicating the legislation’s outlook are other provisions that would allow auto makers to market large numbers of the vehicles in the meantime, with little oversight by either federal or state officials.
“It is extremely hard to imagine how the Senate moves forward with a bill that—no matter how well-intentioned—sets up the possibility of hundreds of thousands of self-driving vehicles hitting our streets without any federal regulations being put in place to safeguard our communities,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.
A California consumer group, Consumer Watchdog, said texts that surfaced in recent litigation over the vehicles showed how people then involved in Uber’s driverless-car project sought to gain every advantage in the intense competition to succeed.
“I just see this as a race and we need to win, second place is first loser,” read one text from developer Anthony Levandowski in March 2016, according to Consumer Watchdog. “We do need to think through the strategy to take all the shortcuts we can find,” said another.
A spokesman for Mr. Levandowski said he “would never under any circumstances take any shortcuts that might endanger human life.”
Write to John D. McKinnon at [email protected]