The House of Representatives on Wednesday unanimously passed proposed legislation to get fully autonomous vehicles on American roads quickly and with minimal state-by-state oversight.
Supporters of the proposed rules say they will help companies developing the technology in the U.S. compete in the high-stakes race toward driving’s future, while critics say it’s too soon to give firms leeway on safety.
A host of car makers and a number of major tech companies, including Google spin-off Waymo and ride-hailing giant Uber, are working on self-driving vehicle projects at a time when the technology is seen as a possible remedy to worsening roadway carnage that brought record deaths in 2015. Silicon Valley is a key center for autonomous vehicle testing and research.
The “Self Drive Act” would bar states from having laws on the design, construction or performance of self-driving vehicles. It would also allow a company to get exemptions from current vehicle laws, and in the first year put onto the roads up to 25,000 vehicles that don’t meet safety standards for regular cars. That cap would climb to 100,000 over three years.
House majority leader Kevin McCarthy said the legislation would make America’s transportation network “safer and more efficient.”
“Advancing this technology to road-ready requires government policy that encourages continued testing and development,” McCarthy said in a statement Sept. 5. “This formula is the foundation for what makes America the most innovative country in the world.”
The proposed legislation would have to receive Senate approval to become law.
But the legislation could free car makers and technology companies from state oversight without standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said John Simpson, spokesman for advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
“There are no enforceable (federal) safety standards,” Simpson said. “The main concern is that it does away with the states’ ability to have any safety standards in place,” Simpson said. “All we’ve gotten is some loose guidance. I’d like to see some national, enforceable safety standards.”
Standards need to be put in place for issues such as how robot cars must respond to hand signals at a construction site and how quickly they would have to pull over safely and stop in event of a system failure, Simpson said.
“When you leave things up to companies they take the cheapest way forward and do not often enough have safety as a primary concern,” Simpson said.
To get exemptions, companies would have to provide detailed analysis showing an autonomous vehicle or self-driving feature was as safe as a traditional vehicle or feature, even if it didn’t meet existing standards, such as a vehicle having a steering wheel.
Letting states make rules for performance of self-driving cars would lead to “complete chaos” and slow progress of the technology into the market, said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead.
The new rules — which are subject to change through the legislative process — should put U.S. companies in a strong position, Moorhead said.
“The first country to really master safe self-driving vehicles, whether they be cars or trucks, is going to be one of the leaders in the global tech scene,” Moorhead said.
Moorhead said he’s confident that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has drafted nationwide standards and rules that are just awaiting legislation from Congress. The traffic administration did not immediately respond to questions about those possible rules and standards.
The proposed act represents a “surprisingly bipartisan approach” to regulation, said Stanford University researcher Bryant Walker Smith.
“This is a reasonable and flexible approach that gives NHTSA more authority, gives serious developers more flexibility, makes it a legal priority for NHTSA to more closely regulate these systems and then doesn’t remove other potential regulatory tools,” he said.
Ethan Baron is a business reporter at The Mercury News, and a native of Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. Baron has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and photographer in newspapers and magazines for 25 years, covering business, politics, social issues, crime, the environment, outdoor sports, war and humanitarian crises.