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Congress in the driver's seat on self-driving cars

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Auto manufacturers have been working on technology for self-driving cars for several years and are testing these vehicles on the roads. But the bills from the House and the Senate signal the federal government is ready to tackle the issue and modernize federal regulations to address the new technology.

For auto manufacturers, technology experts, and lawmakers, 2018 is shaping up to be the year that paves the way for deployment of self-driving vehicles.

Last year, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that provides the federal government with a framework for developing new rules for driverless cars, marking the first step to allowing more self-driving vehicles on public roads.

The Senate Commerce Committee followed suit with its own bill. Now, experts are confident the full Senate will act on the legislation to address self-driving vehicles, eventually sending a bill to President Trump’s desk.

“In 2018, Congress is going to pass legislation, and the president will sign it,” Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, predicted. “The SELF DRIVE Act proved uncontroversial in the House, and that is more or less what I expect the Senate will do.”

Auto manufacturers have been working on technology for self-driving cars for several years and are testing these vehicles on the roads. But the bills from the House and the Senate signal the federal government is ready to tackle the issue and modernize federal regulations to address the new technology.

“So much is being done here that the potential is great,” Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, who sponsored the SELF DRIVE Act, told the Washington Examiner. “When you think about the jobs being created, on the safety side, we can reduce fatalities on the highway, reduce the number of accidents. … We don’t want to stifle this technology. We don’t want to have the innovators out there stuck because of some laws or regulations on the books that don’t allow them to go forward.”

The House passed its bill, called the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution, or SELF DRIVE, Act, in September, which was the culmination of more than 300 meetings with stakeholders, Latta said.

The legislation is similar to the Senate’s bill, called the American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies, or AV START, Act.

The AV START Act passed the Senate Commerce Committee in October, and self-driving vehicle legislation is a top priority for the committee this year.

Both bills give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the authority to regulate the design, construction, and performance of self-driving cars.

State and local governments, meanwhile, will regulate registration, licensing, insurance, and safety and emissions inspections.

The Senate bill’s establishment of federal preemption was praised by organizations representing state and local officials. But they also want to see the upper chamber further define the term “performance” to “exclude the act of complying with traffic laws, thereby firmly associating it with the current federal responsibilities.

“With this approach, state and local laws will continue to focus on the operational safety laws regulating motor vehicles and their operators after such vehicles have been constructed and introduced to public roadways,” the National Governors Association, National League of Cities and United States Conference of Mayors wrote in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee members John Thune, R-S.D., Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Thune, who chairs the committee, and Peters sponsored the AV START Act.

In addition to establishing federal pre-emption, the Senate bill also instructs the Department of Transportation to update Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and determine which safety standards are related to a human driver. The legislation then directs the department to provide an alternative reference for an automated system.

Bill differences

The Senate bill instructs the Department of Transportation to update Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and determine which safety standards are related to a human driver. (AP Photo)

Though the two bills are similar in many ways, they differ in their approaches to safety regulation.

Under the SELF DRIVE Act, the Department of Transportation would have two years to issue a new rule requiring manufacturers of driverless cars to submit a safety assessment certification. The agency would also have one year to issue a safety priority plan to accommodate the development and deployment of self-driving cars.

The AV START Act, meanwhile, requires manufacturers to submit safety evaluation reports to the Department of Transportation. Those reports would address nine subject areas, including safety, crashworthiness, and cybersecurity, and have to be submitted to the federal government before testing or deploying self-driving vehicles.

The two bills also differ in the number of exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can grant.

Under the SELF DRIVE Act, exemptions would begin at 25,000 for the first year and then increase to 100,000 for the third and fourth years.

Under current law, 2,500 exemptions for vehicles can be granted.

In order to receive an exemption, manufacturers are required to prove to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that the car is as safe or safer than cars already on the road.

The Senate bill, by comparison, allows the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to grant up to 15,000 exemptions in the first year. The cap increases to 40,000 self-driving vehicles per manufacturer in the second year, and ramps up to 80,000 for subsequent years.

Concerns from all sides

As of Dec. 28, 49 companies, including Mercedes Benz, Waymo, and Tesla, are approved to test self-driving vehicles on public roads in the state.

Though both the AV START Act and SELF DRIVE Act have garnered support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, some members of the Senate have raised concerns with the legislation.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., offered an amendment to the AV START Act during the bill’s markup that addressed heavy trucks, which is an issue experts predicted would be raised when the bill was rolled out in the Senate.

Inhofe withdrew the amendment.

Jamie Boone, the senior director of government affairs for the Consumer Technology Association, anticipates Congress will pass standalone legislation addressing commercial vehicles in the near future.

“There’s a recognition of the importance of having one system that addresses personal vehicles and commercial vehicles,” she said. “We all drive the same vehicles on the roads together, so having a bifurcated system doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said last month he wants to see stronger provisions for cybersecurity and consumer privacy, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has concerns about safety.

Thune and Peters had hoped to “hotline” the bill, the process for clearing a bill for unanimous consent, before the holidays, and measured support for the legislation among their respective parties.

But Markey and Blumenthal placed holds on the bill during the hotline process.

Boone said lawmakers “ran out of time” to get the AV START Act passed before the end of 2017, but she is optimistic the concerns raised by Markey and Blumenthal can be addressed this year.

“You’ll see us keep up the pressure to keep it moving and clear the holds and get it to the floor,” she said. “Whether it’s done process-wise as hotlined, or a stand-alone vote, or perhaps an option for an infrastructure bill, we want to see it get across the finish line.”

Still, safety advocates are sounding the alarm about what they say are safety issues with both bills.

Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, called on the Senate to amend the AV START Act to allow for fewer exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

“The size and scope of these exemptions must be reduced, and any exemptions to occupant protection standards should be prohibited,” she said. “Although in the future motorists may not need a steering wheel, they will still need an airbag for protection in a crash.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also raised safety concerns about the Senate bill, and said last month she’s opposed to the AV START Act.

“I do not want untested autonomous vehicles on the freeways which are complicated, move fast, and are loaded with huge trucks,” Feinstein told Bloomberg.

California is home to many companies testing self-driving vehicles, and the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles has had regulations governing the testing of autonomous vehicles in place since 2014.

As of Dec. 28, 49 companies, including Mercedes Benz, Waymo, and Tesla, are approved to test self-driving vehicles on public roads in the state.

Safer roads

Proponents of driverless cars believe safety is one of the key reasons the technology is so vital.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,461 people died on U.S. roads in 2016. Ninety-four percent of car accidents were attributed to human error.

The agency logged 3,450 distraction-related deaths, 10,111 speeding-related deaths, and 10,497 drunken-driving deaths.

Eliminating the potential for human error would make the roads safer, Latta said, and he stressed safety was of importance for lawmakers when drafting the bill.

“We all realize with the driverless vehicles, we can improve safety on the highways,” he said. “We’ve seen traffic fatalities going up. We wanted to make sure safety is our top priority: safety first, safety last, safety always.”

Latta also touted the impact self-driving cars would have on communities with mobility challenges, such as the disabled.

“That community, senior citizens, can be better served,” he said. “We want the United States to be the leaders in driverless technology.”

Several manufacturers testing self-driving cars have launched campaigns designed to educate the public about what they say are the safety benefits of the technology.

In October, Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, launched a public campaign called “Let’s Talk Self Driving” with the National Safety Council, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the Foundation for Senior Living, among other organizations.

The campaign included digital and outdoor ads and began in Arizona, where Waymo is testing its autonomous vehicles on public roads.

“Together, we all share excitement at the potential for self-driving cars to one day open doors to safer and easier transportation for millions of people,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a Medium post announcing the campaign. “When 94% of road crashes today involve human error, self-driving cars promise a future where anyone can ride with a driver that never gets drunk, tired or distracted.”

For Boone, having consumers ride in self-driving vehicles will make a significant difference in addressing some of the skepticism toward the technology.

Boone rode in a self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh, and Latta took one for a test run outside of Washington, D.C., with Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss.

“The hands-on experience is going to make a huge difference,” she said. “You see that from the members that have been in the vehicle, how excited they are about the technology and the potential. Seeing and feeling and experiencing something new is the game changer.”

Peters and Thune are working to address concerns surrounding the AV START Act and determine the best path forward for the legislation.

But both Boone and Latta stressed it’s imperative for Congress to pass self-driving vehicle legislation that establishes federal preemption, particularly before more states can enact their own laws related to autonomous vehicles.

Already, 21 states have passed bills related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“You can’t have 50 states and the District of Columbia all having their own laws, because you can’t have a car shut off when it comes to a state line,” Latta said. “I think that Sen. Thune realizes the magnitude of what’s going on there.”

Despite the opposition from some Democratic senators, Boone is optimistic Congress will deliver a bill to Trump that could speed up the deployment of self-driving cars.

“There’s been a good balance with industry and Congress and regulators with what the right public policy approach is,” Boone said. “As long as we maintain that balance, we won’t have any problems, but you never know.”