Autonomous Car Rollout May Be Slowed by Trump Appointee Speed Bump

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By Michaela Ross

The effects of legislation aimed at accelerating the rollout of autonomous vehicles may be slowed by a lack of resources and leadership at the agency tasked with implementing federal vehicle safety rules, Democratic lawmakers and witnesses said June 27 during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

“Right now, there are some challenges to getting there, starting with the leadership vacuum at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” Committee ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), said at the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing.

Dozens of companies, including Ford Motor Co. and Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo, are rushing to develop and test fully-autonomous vehicles. Several have announced that the technology needed to put the first models in dealerships will be ready by 2020 or 2021.

The subcommittee unveiled 14 draft bills this month that aim to clear regulatory obstacles and accelerate deployment of the emerging technology. A handful of the bills would expand the federal vehicle safety standard program controlled by NHTSA, which would allow new self-driving vehicle designs to be deployed in larger numbers.

President Donald Trump hasn’t made appointments for top leadership positions at the agency, and his fiscal year 2018 budget calls for a 13 percent cut to the Department of Transportation, of which NHTSA is a part, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

“We know the Trump administration has not appointed a NHTSA administrator or an acting administrator. The agency didn’t even have an employee who could testify today about legislation that directly affects it,” Pallone said before asking witnesses if they were concerned the agency might not have the resources to develop new self-driving vehicle standards.

Will Wallace, policy analyst at consumer advocacy group Consumer Union, testified at the hearing that NHTSA is a “chronically underfunded, under-resourced agency.” Congress “should include funding for the agency if it’s asking it to take on making these standards,” he said.

An NHTSA spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a Bloomberg BNA request for comment.

Resources Needed

NHTSA needs to upgrade its staff and expertise in software and electronic systems to prepare to evaluate autonomous technologies, witnesses said at the hearing.

“The key for the agency right now is resources when we’re asking the agency to lean into frankly another aspect of driving technology,” David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a trade group that represents companies such as Lyft Inc. and Volvo Cars USA, told Bloomberg BNA.

“The agency is doing a great job with the resources they have today, but it’s clearly going to be an industry and a sector that’s going to grow,” Strickland, a former NHTSA administrator, said.

The subcommittee bills would help speed the safe deployment of new self-driving vehicle designs, Strickland said. But even if the legislation is signed into law, NHTSA would still need to step in to implement it into action, which would take resources, he said.

The subcommittee and full committee aim to hold markups on the bills in July so that they are ready to go when Congress returns from recess, Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta (R-Ohio) told reporters after the hearing. Latta said the speed that the technology is developing is spurring his subcommittee to faster action.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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