WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House on Wednesday unanimously approved a sweeping proposal to speed the deployment of self-driving cars without human controls and bar states from blocking autonomous vehicles.
The bill now goes to the Senate and would allow automakers to obtain exemptions to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles without meeting existing auto safety standards in the first year, a cap that would rise to 100,000 vehicles annually over three years.
Automakers and technology companies, including General Motors Co and Alphabet Inc‘s self-driving unit Waymo, have been pushing for new federal rules making it easier to deploy self-driving technology.
Meanwhile, some consumer groups have sought additional safeguards.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has been working on similar legislation and could circulate a draft of the measure this week. One sticking point will be whether to include commercial self-driving trucks in the legislation. The House measure does not include large trucks.
Volkswagen AG and many other automakers have been lobbying Congress to act, often bringing test vehicles to Capitol Hill to give lawmakers a chance to test out a driverless car.
Representative Doris Matsui said the bill "puts us on a path towards innovation which, up until recently, seemed unimaginable."
The issue has taken on new urgency since U.S. road deaths rose 7.7 percent in 2015, the highest annual jump since 1966, when more than 6.3 million people were injured in 2.44 million crashes.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a 2014 study the annual societal costs of U.S. traffic crashes is $836 billion in economic loss, and said human error accounts for 94 percent of crashes.
Current federal rules bar self-driving cars without human controls on U.S. roads and automakers think proposed state rules in California are too restrictive.
The measure, the first significant federal legislation aimed at speeding self-driving cars to market, would require automakers to submit safety assessment reports to regulators, but would not require pre-market approval of advanced vehicle technologies.
Initially, authors proposed to allow automakers and others to sell up to 100,000 vehicles immediately.
Manufacturers must demonstrate self-driving cars winning exemptions are at least as safe as existing vehicles.
Under the House proposal, states could still set rules on registration, licensing, liability, insurance and safety inspections, but could not set self-driving car performance standards.
Consumer advocates have sought more changes, including giving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration quicker access to crash data and more funding to oversee self-driving cars.
"The autonomous vehicle bill just passed by the House leaves a wild west without adequate safety protections for consumers. It pre-empts any state safety standards, but there are none at the national level," the Consumer Watchdog group said in a statement.
Reuters reported Tuesday that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will unveil revised self-driving guidelines on Tuesday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, citing sources. The department confirmed late Tuesday it plans to unveil the new guidelines next week. The House bill would make complying with the guidelines mandatory to deploy autonomous vehicles.
GM said in a statement that "while more work is needed," the House measure is "good progress toward a law that will facilitate realization of the safety, mobility, and environmental benefits of self-driving vehicles."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Consumer Technology Association, and coalitions of groups backing automated vehicles, including vehicle and auto parts trade associations, and groups representing the blind, praised passage.
The House bill would require new rules mandating automakers add a driver alert to check rear seating in an effort to prevent children from being left behind and consider performance standards for headlights.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)