WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives today easily passed legislation that gives federal regulators final say over performance standards for self-driving vehicles and could allow for as many as 100,000 such vehicles a year to be exempted from safety standards while the technology is developing.
The legislation, which cleared the House on a unanimous voice vote and now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration, represents Congress’ first substantial foray into what has become a thicket of competing state rules across the nation regarding the regulation of autonomous or self-driving cars.
At a time when tech companies such as Google as well as traditional automakers, including American manufacturers based in Detroit, are racing to put self-driving cars on the roads, Congress increasingly felt the need to ensure that states didn’t enact a patchwork of rules that could hurt competition.
“The future of the automobile is here and this bill will give the automotive industry the tools it needs to completely revolutionize how we will get around for decades to come,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, a former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee that had approved the bill.
The legislation would require the U.S. Transportation Department to develop rules within a year regarding self-driving cars sharing roads with traditional vehicles and identify other aspects of autonomous vehicles that may require performance standards to be set, such as sensors, software and the interaction between passengers and the car.
It would allow for as many as 50,000 vehicles to be exempted from current safety standards as technology is being developed over the course of two years, as long as those developments were found to be toward the development of “a feature … providing a safety level at least equal” to current standards. After two years, the number of exemptions would jump to 100,000.
Manufacturers also would be required to develop cybersecurity plans for detecting and responding to cyberattacks on vehicles while also coming up with ways of protecting the personal data of owners. Within two years, the Transportation Department would also be required to develop safety assessment criteria to be submitted by companies developing self-driving vehicles.
And while the legislation leaves to Congress and federal regulators the authority for setting performance standards, it continues to leave to the states authority over issues such as licensing, insurance and law enforcement – except in cases where those rules could prove to be “an unreasonable restriction” on the vehicles’ performance.
The House legislation also includes a separate provision that calls for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop a rule within two years requiring new vehicles to be equipped with an alarm alerting drivers to check rears seats after a vehicle stops. It’s a change that would help reduce the number of deaths to children or animals left in vehicles inadvertently.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group that includes Detroit’s automakers, as well as Toyota, Volkswagen and several others, issued a statement saying the legislation “helps address a variety of barriers that otherwise block the ability to safely test and deploy” technologies that will lead to the development of fully autonomous vehicles.
But the legislation has its critics as well: Consumer Watchdog, a California-based consumer advocacy group, had argued against the legislation, saying that cutting states out of setting their own regulations is inappropriate since federal regulators haven’t set their own standards for self-driving cars.
Last month, the group backed a proposed move to ban self-driving cars in Chicago, saying, “So long as the federal government fails in its responsibility to protect all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians by setting appropriate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), the Chicago City Council should ban autonomous vehicles – robot cars – from being generally deployed on your streets.”
“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, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director.
Officials in Washington hailed the legislation as a good first step toward setting those national standards, however, noting that it does not necessarily preempt state rules for when and where self-driving cars may be tested. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who helped craft the bill, noted that self-driving cars are being touted as a way to reduce both traffic congestion and highway fatalities, the vast majority of which are attributed to human error.
“It means we’re going to improve mobility for seniors and people with disabilities,” she said. “We’re going to reduce congestion on the roads (and)… Self-driving cars have the promise to save lives. … It’s moving the needle forward on safety.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, praised the legislation as "a smart and responsible regulatory framework to guide the way forward on self-driving cars," noting that it had widespread, bipartisan support at a time when Washington is split along partisan lines.
General Motors put out a statement saying, “While more work is needed, the bill that passed the House today represents good progress toward a law that will facilitate realization of the safety, mobility, and environmental benefits of self-driving vehicles.” Company officials did not immediately respond to a question of what more they’d like to see the Senate version of the bill include.
Ultimately, the House and Senate will have to settle on a version of the legislation – a process that could be difficult in the short term with much of the legislative calendar expected to be taken up with other issues throughout the remainder of 2017.
Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is considering the issue in that chamber, called a hearing for next Wednesday on automated trucks operating on U.S. highways as part of the ongoing discussions.
“Self-driving technology for trucks and other large vehicles has emerged as a pivotal issue in Congress’ attempt to help usher in a new era of transportation,” said U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., noting that the discussion will include "perspectives" on issues involving autonomous trucks being excluded from the House legislation.
Contact Todd Spangler at 703-854-8947 or at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler