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A bipartisan trio of U.S. senators June 13 unveiled a set of principles for autonomous vehicle legislation to update federal law for the emerging technology being developed by companies such as Apple Inc. and Ford Motor Co.
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) announced the principles in advance of a June 14 committee hearing on autonomous vehicles.
“These principles underscore our commitment to prioritizing safety, fixing outdated rules, and clarifying the role of federal and state governments,” Thune said in a statement.
The lawmakers nodded to one of the autonomous vehicle industry’s top priorities—a national regulatory framework that pre-empts conflicting local and state rules. Congressional action is needed in light of a wave of new local executive orders, laws and regulations that continue to make it difficult for companies to test and deploy across state lines, company representatives, lobbyists and trade groups have said.
“Because driving is an inherently interstate activity, Congress should enact autonomous vehicle legislation that preempts our divergent state autonomous vehicle laws,” Elliot Katz, one of the leaders of DLA Piper’s connected and self-driving car practice, told Bloomberg BNA.
Thune, Peters, and Nelson said any bill they develop would update the responsibilities of federal and state regulators regarding self-driving vehicles. Currently, states have a role in regulating drivers, insurance and licensing, while the federal government oversees vehicle safety. The emergence of driverless vehicles has blurred those lines and frustrated traditional automotive and tech companies alike.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws, executive orders or regulations controlling autonomous vehicles on their roads, according to Bloomberg Law data. In recent weeks, Colorado, Tennessee, Washington state and the city of Portland, Ore., have made moves to set standards for autonomous vehicles.
“Legislation must clarify the responsibilities of federal and state regulators to protect the public and prevent conflicting laws and rules from stifling this new technology,” the senators said in a statement. They did not set a date for introducing legislation.
To be sure, local lawmakers have said they are within their authority to set parameters for new vehicle technology to keep constituents safe in the absence of federal rules. Companies and trade groups have applauded some local and state actions that aim to spur consumer confidence and economic activity surrounding self-driving vehicles.
Conflicts between localities and industry tend to arise, however, in cases where states or municipalities move to regulate standards that may stifle new vehicle innovations or hinder deployment, Katz said.
Rules that mandate a licensed driver be in the autonomous vehicle or maintain a hand on the steering wheel at all times have drawn criticism from autonomous vehicle trade groups, for example.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created voluntary guidelines for autonomous vehicles last fall, including model policies for states, with the goal of eventually developing formal rules. The Trump administration is reviewing the guidelines. Last week, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the agency would move to update them in the coming months.
Still, while NHTSA has tools to prevent a furthering patchwork of local rules, “the preference would definitely be for Congress to do something,” Jamie Boone, director of government affairs at the Consumer Technology Association, told Bloomberg BNA.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is also addressing several of the issues that Thune, Peters and Nelson outlined, including federal pre-emption of state laws, in its own legislative plans, according to a copy of the plan drafted this spring and obtained by Bloomberg BNA. Legislative language for the House bill may come as early as this month, according to several sources familiar with the process.
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