The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Wednesday, aimed at lifting motor vehicle standards that previously stymied the introduction of new technologies for autonomous cars.
It could become the first federal law specifically aimed at self-driving vehicles, preempting state legislation. Under the bill, each autonomous car maker would eventually be able to deploy up to 100,000 vehicles in a 12-month period — currently, manufacturers may only deploy 2,500 each year.
The Safety Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act, or the SELF DRIVE Act, clarifies the federal government’s role in ensuring the safety of autonomous vehicles by encouraging testing and deployment on roads — a major win for companies like Waymo, Uber, Ford, Delphi, Aurora Innovation and others in the self-driving sphere.
Drafted by Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, the bill passed unanimously in a voice vote at 54-0.
The move comes just a year after California ride-hailing company Uber began testing its autonomous Volvo XC90s on the roads in Pittsburgh. Delphi has also confirmed that it has been testing autonomous vehicles in the city and a number of Argo AI-branded Ford prototypes have been spotted.
In July, the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously passed the SELF DRIVE Act in a bipartisan move.
The bill is essentially a list of measures and exemptions to Section 30103 of title 49 in the U.S. Code, which is administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The act looks to improve the agency’s ability to adapt its safety standards to the emerging technology.
The ultimate goal is for NHTSA to draft permanent regulations for operating self-driving vehicles on the road. The Trump administration has not yet appointed a permanent director of the agency, though Terry Shelton is the acting executive director.
In an email Wednesday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto noted that interdepartmental regulation is obligatory in establishing safety guidelines.
“Smart regulation is critical to guiding innovation and protecting the public,” he said. “We welcome the opportunity to work with the U.S. DOT, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, PennDOT, CMU, manufacturers, and all other parties involved in autonomous vehicle guidance and development.”
A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office also added that Pittsburgh has consistently urged the federal and state governments to adopt reasonable regulations for autonomous vehicles and other new mobility providers that ensures safety and opportunity for all users.
While the bill makes clear that it is preemptive over state law, it designates a laundry list of functions for states to handle — such as insurance, crash investigations, safety and emissions inspections, and other subjects not directly related to autonomous vehicles testing.
“If this bill passes, states may not enact contradictory laws,” Seth Oranburg, a Duquesne University assistant law professor, wrote in an email.
Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, introduced state Senate Bill 1268 to regulate autonomous vehicles in Pennsylvania.
“It is not clear whether certain provisions in the Pa. bill, such as a requirement for a $5 million bond to be posted before operating an autonomous vehicle on a test road, would be preempted by the federal law,” Mr. Oranburg said.
“Clearly [the SELF DRIVE Act] is something we want to have in terms of product safety regulations,” said Brian Kennedy, Pittsburgh Technology Council’s senior vice president for operations and government affairs. “We want that being handled by one agent...these are cars that will travel across state lines. You don’t need 50 different regulatory authorities.”
Mr. Oranburg echoed similar sentiment on a nationwide compliance system for states.
“Having one law throughout America will make it much easier for autonomous car manufacturers to develop and scale production of autonomous vehicles,” he said. “It also resolves certain concerns about driving an autonomous vehicle between state lines.”
Also under the federal bill, self-driving car manufacturers must draft written cybersecurity plans to address how they would identify and deal with privacy concerns. Manufacturers must also cite plans for data collected by autonomous cars.
The SELF DRIVE Act also calls for a Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Council that would be appointed by the secretary of transportation.
Trade groups and watchdog organizations appear split on the bill.
The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS), a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to advancing the research, development and deployment of smart transportation systems, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon in favor of the House’s decision.
“The House vote marks an important first step in creating the framework for the safe introduction of highly autonomous vehicles into our nation’s transportation system,” said David St. Amant, interim president and CEO.
“ITS America is confident that highly automated vehicles will help solve many of our nation’s most critical transportation challenges while saving thousands of lives annually, improving mobility, providing greater accessibility, increasing sustainability, and strengthening our economy.”
The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which was formed in April 2016 by Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo Cars and Waymo, mirrored ITS America’s statement.
“Self-driving vehicles offer an opportunity to significantly increase safety, improve transportation access for underserved communities, and transform how people, goods and services get from point A to B,” said general counsel David Strickland.
Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group in Santa Monica, Calif. expressed concern with a lack of control at the local level.
“Preempting the states’ ability to fill the void left by federal inaction leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” said John M. Simpson, privacy project director in a statement. “The sad reality is that President Trump hasn’t even bothered to nominate a NHTSA administrator.”
The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate, which has begun work on a similar bill.
“Senators might be concerned that there have not been very many safety hearings in Congress yet on this topic, but that may be allayed by the fact that the secretary of transportation will have a few years to produce final rules,” said Mr. Oranburg at Duquesne.
“On the other hand, major companies like Lyft, Uber, GM, Toyota, and Google are pushing hard for this bill to pass,” he continued. “Given the level of corporate support, I expect this bill will make its way through the House and the Senate in a reasonable period of time.”
Courtney Linder: [email protected] or 412-263-1707. Twitter: @LinderPG.