Senate Panel May Mark Up Self-Driving Vehicle Bill by Columbus Day

By Shaun Courtney

A Senate bill that would regulate self-driving vehicles might be marked up before the Columbus Day break if Republicans and Democrats can agree on whether to include commercial vehicles, the Commerce Committee chairman told reporters Sept. 13.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) will have to work with Senate Democrats like his fellow bill author, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), to craft legislation that allays concerns about safety, cybersecurity and the impact on workers of self-driving commercial vehicles.

A similar House bill passed Sept. 6 without a trucking provision, in part because the committee that drafted the bill does not have jurisdiction over trucking.

“I’m hoping that we find a kind of way to work with the Democrats to strike the right balance—sort of thread the needle, if you will,” Thune told reporters after the hearing. “But obviously we want this to be a bipartisan effort. There’s a real need, I think, for Congress to act in this space.”

Truck Drivers and Safety

While leaders of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the Teamsters union agree there is a shortage of truck drivers, they were at odds over including self-driving trucks in the new regulatory framework.

Self-driving technology won’t replace drivers, but could make long-haul trips safer and more efficient, ATA President Chris Spear said. He urged the Senate to create a framework that allows commercial trucks to benefit from the innovation of self-driving technology and give the industry “one seamless standard at the federal level.”

Truck drivers worry about the safety of the technology and the possibility of increased tracking of workers, General Secretary-Treasurer of the Teamsters union Ken Hall.

Companies push the boundaries of safety and do not properly self-regulate, he said, pointing to cheating by Volkswagen AG on emissions standards and air bag failures with Takata Corp.

“The fear of many transportation workers is that absent strong action and guidance from this committee and others, a new generation of autonomous vehicles will provide limitless opportunity for this same pattern of reckless behavior,” Hall said during the hearing.

Cybersecurity

Senators also wanted to know whether cybersecurity should be included in the proposed regulatory framework. Several members of the committee raised concerns about hacking and computer-operated trucks.

Congress needs to proactively develop “robust mandatory regulations” to protect self-driving vehicles from cyberattacks, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said during the hearing Sept. 13.

ATA’s Spear cautioned senators against being overly prescriptive, saying the wrong regulations can be just as dangerous as no regulation—especially given the rapidly evolving self-driving technology.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s new guidance on self-driving technology safety, which includes voluntary safety self-assessments, is the right step, said Spear.

Markey criticized the National Highway Safety Administration’s self-driving guidelines as insufficient.

Thune said that’s why the Senate ought to address those safety concerns in legislation.

Reconciling House, Senate Bills

Senate committee staff members have had informal conversations with House staff to resolve differences between the two bills, including the potential inclusion of trucks.

“But I think ultimately [House members] realize like we do that we’re going to have to deal with the trucking issue too in some fashion,” Thune said. “So if we could do it here—however we end up resolving this in the end—get everybody in the same place, I think that would be a good outcome.”

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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