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Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune and Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters Feb. 13 announced they would weigh legislation that would regulate self-driving cars.
Such a measure would be the first federal bill targeting self-driving cars. The senators said they wanted to make regulations more flexible so self-driving vehicles could be tested and developed without changing the rules for conventional automobiles. Thune (R-S.D.) and Peters said they would aim to propose legislation in 2017.
“Left on its own, the slow pace of regulation could become a significant obstacle to the development of new and safer vehicle technology in the United States,” Thune and Peters said.
One issue, the senators said, is that current safety regulations specify placement of driver controls for vehicles that have human operators—a misfit for autonomous vehicles, or AVs.
Updating those standards would be welcome, Jamie Boone, director of government affairs at the Consumer Technology Association, told Bloomberg BNA. That would free self-driving car makers from restrictions “so we’re we not blocking certain technologies with regulations that were written 50 or 60 years ago,” Boone said.
Congress could also let AV manufacturers test more vehicles for longer periods, by expanding current vehicle testing exemptions, or open testing up beyond traditional automobile manufacturers, Boone said.
“I don’t think that Congress acting means it’s not a light touch, I think they can do things that are narrowly focused,” Boone said.
The lawmakers also said they would hold discussions about the role of federal and state regulators’ oversight of autonomous vehicles.
The self-driving vehicle industry is concerned about testing and deploying technologies on interstate highways, given the current patchwork of state regulations. Currently, states regulate drivers, insurance and licensing, whereas the federal government overseas vehicle safety. The emergence of driverless vehicles has blurred those roles and led states to introduce new laws for autonomous vehicles, frustrating automakers and technology companies alike.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released voluntary safety guidelines and a model state policy guide for autonomous vehicles last September. The guidelines included a 15-point safety assessment outlining cybersecurity and privacy protections and encouraged manufacturers to share vehicle-testing data. At the time, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the guidelines would be reviewed annually in the department’s path toward formal rule-making.
Thune and Peters may end up introducing legislation before the DOT makes another move, given President Donald Trump’s executive order that two existing regulations be eliminated for every new one that’s adopted. That likely would leave new Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to scrap old regulations to make way for a new one on AVs.
Meanwhile, a Toyota Motor Corp. executive is calling for a moratorium on states regulating autonomous vehicle technology to prevent a further division of state laws, according to prepared testimony for a Feb. 14 House Energy and Commerce Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing on self-driving cars testing and government oversight. Representatives from Lyft Inc., General Motors Co., Volvo Cars NV and RAND Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, a nonprofit policy research group, are also scheduled to testify.
“A clear and unequivocal statutory or regulatory prohibition on states regulating vehicle performance of autonomous vehicle technology would help to halt or prevent the emergence of a patchwork of state laws,” Gill Pratt, chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute, said in his prepared testimony.
Pratt is also expected to call on Congress to address and clarify parts of NHTSA’s voluntary guidelines, according to his prepared remarks. For example, Pratt called in his prepared statement for traditional automakers to have permission to test AV prototypes on public roads without submitting a safety assessment of the vehicle—as automakers are allowed to do with conventional vehicles.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit representing state and territorial highway safety offices, said it welcomed congressional leadership in autonomous vehicle deployment. The association has encouraged states to establish safety requirements for automakers testing self-driving technology but said they should defer to NHTSA on regulation of the technology itself.
“As with any rapidly advancing technology, states risk adopting a patchwork of differing rules and requirements for AVs that may inadvertently hinder testing and deployment,” association spokeswoman Kara Macek told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail. “GHSA encourages the federal government to continue the work begun with NHTSA’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy to develop a thoughtful national framework for AV standards and performance and state and federal policy.”
Boone said self-driving car companies would applaud congressional action to streamline state regulation.
“Congress could come in and do something to preempt those state laws in a bill like this,” Boone said.
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