Public Lobbying Heats Up on Senate Self-Driving Car Bill (1)

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By Shaun Courtney

Competing interest groups are pressuring Senate party leaders over a committee-approved self-driving car bill, with supporters urging quick action on the measure they tout as potentially lifesaving while critics say the legislation needs “essential and urgent improvements.”

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s AV START Act (S.1885) would create a national framework to regulate autonomous cars and trucks lighter than 10,000 pounds, such as those developed by companies including Ford Motor Co., Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo LLC and Lyft Inc.

More than 100 proponents, including Intel Corp., the American Foundation for the Blind, and the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, urged Senate leaders in a letter to move the bill before the Memorial Day recess.

Another group made up of 27 safety advocates, bicyclists, disability communities, and first responders called in a letter for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to make changes to the bill before allowing a floor vote. McConnell is married to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), have been working since late 2017 to clear their bill for consideration under unanimous consent.

Absent unanimous consent, the bill sponsors will need to find another way to move the bill, Thune told reporters last week.

“We’ve got to move it,” he said.

Menace to Society?

A false sense of urgency around the emerging technology is “propelling legislation that significantly strips the current federal regulatory system of its appropriate authority and oversight thereby endangering the safety of everyone,” the opponents’ letter states.

The three senators who have publicly taken the stance of holdouts on the bill are all Democrats on the committee—Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Blumenthal and Markey have raised questions about the safety and security of self-driving technology. Feinstein worries about the interaction between self-driving cars and human drivers, especially on busy highways.

Those concerns are valid, the opponents’ group argues in its letter to McConnell and Schumer.

“Allowing the public sale of unproven autonomous vehicle technologies, granting automakers broad and unsafe exemptions from existing federal standards, and ignoring the need for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue minimum safety requirements to address real problems will have disastrous consequences for public safety and public acceptance of driverless cars,” the letter says.

The proposed changes include reducing the number of vehicles allowed exemptions from current safety standards, barring manufacturers from turning off vehicle systems such as steering wheels and brakes, and creating a set of federal safety standards specific to AV technology.

The letter also revisits the issue of federal preemption of state authority. The bill would preempt state and local authorities from regulating the design, construction, and performance of autonomous vehicles and would delegate that authority to the federal government.

‘80 Votes’

Proponents of the bill and the technology in general, however, want to see the bill passed soon so the House and Senate and work out the differences in their bills and President Donald Trump can sign the first-ever federal framework for self-driving technology.

“The legislation will help provide a clear delineation of federal and state roles with respect to highly automated vehicles—a critical aspect that will protect against a patchwork of regulations that could stifle innovation, job growth, and the development of safety technologies that will reduce the number of lives lost on U.S. roadways,” their letter states. The group points to the likelihood of strong bipartisan support for the bill as a reason to move it quickly, a sentiment Thune has often expressed. “If we got that bill on the floor we’d get 80 votes in the Senate, or more,” Thune told reporters Feb. 27. Read more about the Senate and House AV bills in our Bloomberg Government OnPoint.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Sean Barry

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