Bill Would Block State Laws On Self-Driving Cars

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Washington – States would prevented from passing their own laws on the testing or design of self-driving cars under a proposed bill being drafted in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The measure, which would represent a big win for carmakers, is a stark departure from the Obama administration’s recommendation that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report information about their self-driving testing to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.

Under the Obama administration’s proposed rules, which were nonbinding, automakers and technology companies would have had to meet a set of 15 guidelines before they could place self-driving cars on public roads. Automakers complained that reporting on their self-driving test could delve in proprietary information that would normally be shielded from their competitors view.

The new proposal from Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee would require information related to highly automated vehicles to be treated as “confidential business information,” according to a draft of the legislation obtained by The Detroit News.

The proposed legislation prohibits states and other local jurisdictions from adopting regulations related to cars’ design, construction, software or communication. States still would be allowed to regulate registration, licensing, liability, education and training, insurance or traffic laws.

The bill would also allow the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to designate up to 100,000 cars that would be exempt from the existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, which did not contemplate the development of self-driving cars; the current limit is 2,500 cars. The measure would also increase the number of years that a manufacturer can maintain an exemption from federal motor vehicle standards from two years to five years.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said lawmakers in both parties are working closely together to make sure the self-driving bill is bipartisan.

“We haven’t been going for the headlines, but we’ve trying to bring everybody together to make sure that we remain at the forefront of innovation,” Dingell, who is a member of the panel, said in an interview with The Detroit News. “We can’t let India and China get ahead of us on this.”

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate also are working on a bipartisan bill to regulate self-driving cars. U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., all members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, released on Tuesday a set of “bipartisan principles” that call for prioritizing safety, promoting innovation, reinforcing separate federal and state roles, strengthening cybersecurity and educating the public on self-driving cars. The lawmakers said they have not agreed to specific legislation language.

Self-driving car advocates have been pushing federal regulators to adopt a national set of rules for autonomous driving testing because states like Michigan and California are beginning to craft their own regulations.

A bill that would allow self-driving cars to be operated on any of the Michigan’s 122,000 miles of roads and eliminate the need for a driver to be behind the wheel was passed into law last year.

California initially took the opposite tack by requiring a licensed driver — and a steering wheel — to be in the car at all times. But the state later relented with a proposal to allow car companies to request permits for robotic car testing. Automakers grumbled the steering wheel requirement would limit testing in California.

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an advocacy group representing 12 of the world’s largest car manufacturers, praised lawmakers for increasing the number of cars that can be exempted from federal requirements. “We support increasing the number of vehicles that can be tested, and we look forward to working with the committee to move legislation forward,” she said in a email.

John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group, complained that the House’s proposed self-driving legislation is “all about pre-emption of state regulations (and) expanding exemptions.

“There is no serious thought given to any kind of creation of meaningful, enforceable federal motor vehicle safety standards,” he said. “That is what we need right now.”

Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said the proposed legislative language is big a win for carmakers who have been seeking wide latitude to test self-driving cars and have pushed regulators to adopt national standards.

“In a victory for autonomous vehicle developers, a new Republican plan seeks to clarify where state and federal jurisdiction begins and ends regarding self-driving cars…,” Lindland said.

“The federal government will regulate specific aspects of development and systems, while state or political subdivisions can regulate registration, licensing, and other local concerns,” she continued. “This prevents a patchwork of standards while still providing geographical customization.”

Lindland added the proposal to expand the number of vehicles that are exempt from current safety standards and increase the length of the exemption term “further facilitates real world testing of the technology,” which she said is “key to socializing self-driving vehicles.”

Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, agreed.

“There are three major components of making self-driving cars a reality: technology, hardware and regulations,” Brauer said. “The technology and hardware are rapidly evolving at various companies, but neither will matter if the regulatory element takes forever to get resolved.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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