Washington — The federal government will have to find ways to regulate self-driving cars that don’t stifle innovation among auto manufacturers and technology companies, lawmakers and industry groups agreed during a hearing that took place hours after a shooting rocked Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Proceeding with business as usual after a brief acknowledgment of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., during practice for an annual Congressional baseball game, members of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee described the delicate tightrope walk that regulators face with self-driving autos.
“Current federal motor vehicle safety standards do not address automated technologies, and in some cases directly conflict with them,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is chairman of the panel. “We are looking for ways to address these conflicts in dated rules without weakening the important vehicle safety protections they provide.”
Thune quickly added: “We also must be careful to avoid picking winners and losers in this space… It is important for Congress not to favor one path before the market figures out what really works best.”
Thune, along with Michigan U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., all members of the Senate Commerce Committee, released on Tuesday “bipartisan principles” to guide legislation on self-driving cars.
Thune, who said he rode in an Audi A7 that had self-driving features last week, said the advent of autonomous cars will require drastic changes for both automakers and regulators.
“Government needs to challenge itself to overcome the traditional 20th-century conception – and regulation – of a car and a human driver,” he said. “AVs (autonomous vehicles) will – over time – bring changes to jobs, insurance, law enforcement, infrastructure and many other things we cannot yet foresee. Similar to when the car was first invented, these challenges are not insurmountable.”
Democrats on the panel agreed, talking up the potential safety and economic benefits of self-driving cars.
“This technology is without question one of the most transformative technologies to come out of the auto industry probably since the first car came off of the assembly line,” Peters said. “Certainly we know what happened when that first automobile came off of the assembly line, it literally transformed America. It created the American middle class.”
Peters touted Michigan’s role in the development of self-driving cars, arguing that the state is “leading the way” in innovation in the arena of autonomous vehicles.
Auto industry groups pushed lawmakers to act fast in creating regulations for self-driving cars, arguing that they are closer to appearing on U.S. roads than many people think.
“The key question this committee must ask is how to use public policy to optimize the safe deployment of these vehicles and their promise of social good, while continuing to let innovation spur economic growth,” said Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for automakers in Washington.
Bainwol said driver-assist systems that have become popular in recent years like adaptive cruise control and active lane keep have “accelerated significantly” the move toward autonomy in the automotive sector.
“The more consumers experience driver-assist systems, the more they are favorable toward full automation,” Bainwol said.
Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said self-driving cars hold the promise to reduce the number of car crashes that involve inebriated drivers, noting that her 18-year-old son was killed in a 2004 crash that involved a driver who was under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
“Technology will ultimately be the way we eliminate drunk driving,” she said. “Autonomous vehicles are vital in helping us achieve our goal.”
Other safety groups complained that they did not have a seat at the table in Wednesday’s hearing, however, noting that MADD’s agenda is narrowly focused on eliminating drunk driving.
“A spokesman for MADD has the laudable, but narrow, agenda of combating drunk driving,” Santa Monica, Calif.-based Consumer Watchdog wrote in a letter to leaders of the Senate panel. “This is an industry-dominated panel with no representatives of auto safety or consumer protection organizations.”