Feinstein Emerges as Newest Holdout on Self-Driving Vehicle Bill

By Michaela Ross and Shaun Courtney

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has emerged as the latest Democrat putting a hold on the quick passage of legislation that would speed up the rollout of self-driving vehicles.

“I’m strongly opposed to it,” Feinstein told Bloomberg Government Dec. 14. “I do not want untested autonomous vehicles on the freeways which are complicated, move fast and are loaded with huge trucks.”

The Republican and Democratic cloakrooms have been pushing to move the the AV START bill ( S. 1885) through the hot-lining process by gauging concerns from lawmakers that would prevent the bill from passing the Senate this year under unanimous consent. The bill would create the first national regulatory framework for the technology being developed by companies like Tesla Inc. and Lyft Inc.

Feinstein said she had safety concerns about testing autonomous vehicles on busy California highways and was worried deaths would occur.

“I think you go to less complicated areas to do your testing, not in the middle of jammed freeways with frustrated drivers,” Feinstein said.

Addressing Concerns

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich), a co-sponsor of the bill, told Bloomberg Government he thought Feinstein’s concerns could be addressed to keep the legislation moving forward.

“States still have the ability to determine where these automobiles may actually be,” Peters told Bloomberg Government. “So I think there will be a path for us.”

Feinstein’s home state of California is a stronghold for headquarters of self-driving vehicle companies. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has had a regulatory framework in place for companies to test autonomous vehicles on public roads since 2014. As of Nov. 30, 44 companies, including General Motors Co.'s GM Cruise LLC and Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo, had been issued permits to test on California roads.

Proponents of the legislation say that self-driving vehicles have the potential to prevent thousands of accidents caused by human driver error. The National Safety Council estimated a total of 40,200 people died in U.S. crashes in 2016.

“We should not be scared about highly autonomous vehicles being tested and deployed, we should be scared that they cannot be tested and deployed fast enough,” Elliot Katz, chair of McGuireWoods LLP’s connected and automated vehicle practice, told Bloomberg Law in response to Feinstein’s comments. “Especially in California, where traffic deaths increased 13 percent last year alone.”

Democratic Opposition

Feinstein joins a handful of other Senate Democrats who have voiced opposition to the bill, which won Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approval in September. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have raised concerns about about the safety and security of the technology and the protection of operators’ private data.

Still, Blumenthal told Bloomberg Government Dec. 12 that he was optimistic about the progress made to resolve his concerns. Markey is expected to introduce an amendment to address privacy concerns, according to three private industry sources familiar with the matter.

One GOP holdout, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), lifted his hold on the legislation in recent days, according the sources.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who introduced the bill, told Bloomberg Government and Bloomberg Law Dec. 12 that he was working to address Democrats’ concerns to pass the legislation either by unanimous consent or as an amendment to another fast-moving vehicle. He said he thought the bill could still get to the president’s desk by “early next year.”

“It’s kind of a pretty delicate balance right now I’d say, but I think we can get it done,” Thune said.

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

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

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