Seven years after Google started developing robocars, 13 months after a Florida man died in a Tesla Model S that was driving itself, and almost a year after self-driving Ubers started picking up passengers in Pennsylvania, Congress might actually start regulating autonomous vehicles.
Nearly everyone working on this emerging technology, from automakers to the tech companies to the government watchdogs, agrees that it's about time. The robocars scurrying about places like Austin and Boston and San Francisco operate under a mélange of state and local rules that lay down different requirements and appease myriad special interests. And if this patchwork persists, bringing these cars to the market could be a major headache.
No longer. Maybe. Last week, the Senate published bipartisan principles outlining what the legislation might look like. House Republicans, meanwhile, started circulating the drafts of a 14-bill package making it easier for federal regulators to make all the rules. Congress, it seems, wants to shred the patchwork of rules and regulations and blanket the nation in uniform guidelines that allow the technology to develop while ensuring everyone it will be safe. But giving the feds that authority creates some problems—and raises plenty of questions.
A New Regime
Part of the problem here is autonomous vehicles don't fit neatly into the current regulatory structure. The Department of Transportation dictates how vehicles are built (airbags, seat belts, crumple zones), but states regulate their operation (licensing, insurance, traffic laws). That division of labor doesn't work when how the car is designed governs how it is operated.
This hasn't changed in the seven years since Google turned its first autonomous vehicle prototypes loose on the streets of Mountain View, California. It was only last fall that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its guidelines for self-driving cars and asked automakers and others for their input.
In the absence of any federal oversight, California, Nevada, Michigan, and other states wrote their own rules. Each takes a different approach to ensuring public safety without stifling innovation. Arizona requires nothing more than a standard vehicle registration, for example, while New York demands all robocars have police escorts.
Which is why the legislation making the rounds of Capitol Hill this week prioritizes “preemption”—a fancy way of saying the federal rules would supersede state and local regulations. That may be most annoying for California, which has spent years hashing things out with automakers and tech companies. The Golden State requires companies submit public data on what their cars are doing and when they crash. Under the House package, that authority probably would fall to federal regulators, and it's not clear what data might be made public.
The proposed legislation would also exempt as many as 100,000 robocars from federal standards that require things like steering wheels and foot-activated brakes that do not apply to autonomous vehicles. Right now, the rules permit just 2,500 exemptions from such rules. Easing that could advance the technology. “Testing AVs is going to require millions and millions—if not trillions—of miles," says Greg Rogers, who writes about autonomous vehicle regulation for the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank. The more cars on the roads, the faster you rack up miles.
Under the draft legislation, those exemptions would serve as a stopgap while NHTSA figures out how to ensure autonomous driving is safe and rewrites its rules.
But some safety-minded advocates want answers before the robots swarm the streets. "Developing the appropriate thresholds of safety should be informed by research," Nidhi Kalra, an autonomous vehicle policy expert and director of the Rand Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, said during a House hearing earlier this year.
“What you want is performance standards,” says John Simpson, a consumer rights advocate with Consumer Watchdog. He says federal regulators should skip the stopgap period and establish firm safety rules, even if they don't yet fully understand the technology or where it might go. “You don’t say: ‘This is how you make the car stop within so many feet of having the brakes applied.’ All you say is, ‘It has to be able to stop.’”
The problem is no one knows how this tech will shake out, or the best way to regulate something that doesn't really exist yet. That’s why it all remains so vague—and why everyone finds the rules so tricky to write.
But there's an upside to that: There aren't too many details to fight over. “Every member [of Congress] finds something to like about autonomous vehicles,” says Rogers. “It’s the Rorschach test of policy.” AVs could be good for tech, for driver safety, for the disability community, for public transit, for deep-pocketed investors. (The legislative package would also require Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to convene advisory councils on disability, underserved populations, seniors,and cybersecurity, to determine how autonomous vehicles can best serve all Americans.) It's the rare topic about which federal lawmakers can hold hands across the aisle as they sing “Kumbaya.”
“That’s actually one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen about [autonomous vehicle legislation]—the principles for the [Senate] bipartisan regulation is a pretty similar framework to what the House dropped,” says Caleb Watney, who studies tech policy with the libertarian R Street Institute. “In an age where every Congress member’s approval ratings are so low, why not move forward on it?”
In fact, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing about the legislation later this month. There’s some speculation Congress could introduce—and maybe even pass—a bill by the end of the July. For years now, self-driving has been the Wild, Wild West. It looks like a new (and pretty permissive) sheriff is in town.