Senate Self-Driving Vehicle Bill Exempts Trucks

By Shaun Courtney and Michaela Ross

A Senate proposal to set a national regulatory framework for driverless vehicle technology being developed by companies like Ford Motor Co. and Uber Technologies Inc., won’t apply to heavy trucks.

The AV START Act (S. 1885) would only cover autonomous cars and light trucks lighter than 10,000 pounds. The legislation was sponsored by Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and introduced Sept. 28.

The debate over whether to include heavier commercial driverless vehicles in the bill had stalled the proposal since July, after unions raised concerns over potential driver job losses.

Another notable change is an update to the state preemption provisions that delineate the state and federal regulatory roles. The Senate bill now includes language similar to provisions in the House SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388), which prohibits states from regulating the design, construction or performance of autonomous vehicle systems.

Thune said in a statement that the bill may change before a planned Oct. 4 committee markup.

“The vast majority of the work has been completed, but it’s never done until it’s out of committee,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) told reporters Sept. 28.

Trucks Down the Road

The exclusion of commercial vehicles heavier than 10,000 pounds, like semi-tractors or heavy trucks, was a win for unions that said the bill was advancing too fast for Congress to understand its impact.

“This approach will give Congress more time to thoroughly examine how driverless technology will impact the jobs, wages, and safety of bus and truck drivers, and develop a plan to address these concerns,” Larry Willis, president of AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Division, said in a statement.

Thune told Bloomberg BNA he is committed to pursuing legislation on self-driving heavy trucks. He said he would come back to the issue if he had to peel commercial trucks off from the bill he was already working on with Peters and ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which had worked to include trucking in the bill, said the latest bill version simply delays the inevitable debate needed over how to regulate autonomous trucking technology.

“ATA believes this is not the end of the road for this issue,” Chris Spear, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “If more automated cars and trucks are to share the roads, they should also share the same framework.

“While we are disappointed this draft bill does not yet include language pertaining to commercial trucks, we are hopeful the needs and concerns of our industry will be addressed before final passage,” he said.

The exclusion of trucking has also drawn concern from groups who said the move will slow the development of driverless truck technology by keeping in place caps for the number of new vehicle designs that can operate on U.S. roads. It would also allow the technology to develop without the additional safety assessment provisions and rulemaking included in the Senate bill.

“We’ll have to consider how we deal with trucks in the future, but that would be a separate piece of legislation at some point in the future,” Peters told reporters Sept. 28. He said he would not commit to any specific time frame.

Consumer Safety

Unions were not the only ones to raise safety concerns. Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, criticized AV START for being “weaker than the safeguards for cars on the road today.”

Consumer groups were wary of the Senate’s approach to preemption, especially given the recent hands-off federal guidelines issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the void left by federal inaction leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson said.

Changes Before Markup

There could still be revisions between now and the markup Oct. 4.

“I’m proud of this bipartisan legislation but recognize there are still opportunities to make it even better, and I look forward to working with colleagues as we head toward a committee vote next week,” Thune said in the statement.

Peters told reporters he and Thune would prefer not to take amendments during markup, but rather handle committee members’ concerns in advance.

“There may be a manager’s amendment with some other changes,” Peters said.

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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