House Self-Driving Car Proposals Would Put Feds in Driver’s Seat

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By Michaela Ross

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has circulated discussion drafts of 14 bills that could set the first major national laws for autonomous vehicles, according to a copy of the proposals reviewed by Bloomberg BNA.The Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee June 15 distributed the drafts after soliciting feedback on a similar legislative proposal circulated to industry stakeholders earlier this spring. Companies such as Ford Motor Co. and NVIDIA Corp. have called for provisions included in the draft bills to update and clarify the roles of state and federal governments and expand existing federal vehicle safety standard exemptions to speed up the roll-out of self-driving vehicles. The proposals address a top concern of the autonomous vehicle industry, which has called for clarity between the authorities of state and federal officials to regulate the new technology. One of the House draft bills prohibits states or localities from regulating the “design, construction, mechanical systems, software systems, or communications systems” of highly automated vehicles.

A wave of state and municipal actions to set standards for AVs has led to an industry outcry that a growing patchwork of laws will burden manufacturers and drivers who wish to sell and operate vehicles under a nationwide standard. States like California have moved to regulate the safety of autonomous vehicles, saying it must act to ensure citizen protection while no federal safety standards are in place.

Variety of House Proposals

One of the draft bills would clarify that states would continue to have authority over issues like insurance, registration, traffic laws and licensing. Several of the other draft bills circulated by the subcommittee aim to accelerate autonomous vehicle testing and deployment by expanding the Department of Transportation’s federal motor vehicle safety standard (FMVSS) exemption program. Federal safety standards, such as those mandating a steering wheel or brake pedal, were designed for a human driver and may not apply to new self-driving technologies, tech and vehicle manufacturing companies have said. Expanding the number and time limit of exemptions allowed would open the door for companies to more rapidly test new self-driving designs that don’t meet current requirements.

One draft bill would allow the Department of Transportation to increase the number of these exemptions from 2,500 to 100,000 vehicles per manufacturer sold in a 12-month period. Another draft bill would increase the time a manufacturer could operate with that exemption from two years to five years.

Yet another draft bill would allow tech companies and non-traditional vehicle manufacturers the ability to apply for safety standard exemptions to test self-driving cars so as not to limit testing to traditional auto manufacturers.

Senate Ready to Jump In?

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) June 13 announced their own framework for autonomous vehicle legislation that addresses several of the same issues as the House subcommittee’s approach, including state and federal role clarification and exemptions. Peters has said the bipartisan Senate trio is aiming to release a draft bill by August.

Advocates of self-driving technology say it could drastically reduce the number of traffic-related fatalities on U.S. roads, on which more than 35,000 individuals were killed in 2015, according to U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Still, some safety groups, like the consumer advocate organization Consumer Watchdog, say the government needs to take more steps to ensure accountability, transparency and safety for the developing technology before it is allowed to operate on public roads.

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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