Investigators examine the Uber vehicle involved in a March fatal crash, which caused concern among senators wanting stricter self-driving laws.
WASHINGTON — The legislative effort to bring more certainty to autonomous vehicle development faces an increasingly uncertain future.
Nearly a year ago, a House panel easily approved a bill, the Self Drive Act, liberalizing rules for testing and deploying self-driving vehicles, including provisions that would exempt more vehicles from rules designed for conventional vehicles, and preempt state regulation of the vehicles. A similar bill, the AV START Act, cleared the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously the following month.
But despite the broad bipartisan support, progress has been stalled ever since. Senate backers are exploring ways to bring the AV START Act to a vote, but prospects are dim as the Senate calendar fills up with other Republican priorities.
That’s frustrating House members who see the inaction delaying the adoption of potentially life-saving technology and eroding the U.S. advantage in r&d. Automakers and technology companies working on autonomous systems say they need regulatory certainty and consistency before fully committing to r&d efforts in the U.S.
“Time is running out” as other regions of the world move aggressively to invest in driverless vehicle technology, Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, chairman of the Energy and Commerce digital-commerce subcommittee, said in a recent interview. “We want to make sure that the technology that is out there is U.S. technology and we’re developing it here.”
“If we don’t do this,” he added, “you’re going to have 50 states and the District of Columbia doing their own thing.”
Latta and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., are urging Senate action on the AV START Act. The legislation has broad interest from lawmakers beyond the auto industry’s base, as states compete for investments in testing grounds and other research facilities.
The bill’s sponsors, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., are trying to get it through the Senate. But five Democrats, concerned that self-driving cars aren’t yet safe enough to place on public roads without stricter performance requirements, have blocked the bill from being approved by unanimous consent, meaning it would have to be scheduled for a separate floor vote by the Senate and face more procedural hurdles.
Bolstering their resolve was the fatal accident in March involving an Uber-operated self-driving vehicle, which struck a pedestrian during a nighttime test run in Arizona, which has some of the country’s most permissive laws for driverless vehicles.
Safety advocates have urged the Senate to put the brakes on its bill until the National Transportation Safety Board completes investigations into the accident and a crash involving a Tesla vehicle in Autopilot mode.
Senate time is limited
In any case, there are few working days left on the Senate calendar for a stand-alone AV START bill to be considered in the current session of Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is shortening the Senate’s traditional August recess, but most of the extra time will be for clearing a backlog of administration nominations and spending bills, and the new priority of confirming a new Supreme Court justice.
The only realistic alternative for autonomous vehicle proponents is to get the bill attached to other legislation that will go to the floor, with Thune and others suggesting the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration as the most likely candidate. But the FAA bill, too, has languished for a year because of disagreements over controversial provisions.
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is one of many groups seeking significant changes in the AV START Act. The group “vehemently opposes” attaching AV START to an unrelated bill, said Allison Kennedy, assistant director of government affairs, in an email, adding that some lawmakers are creating an “artificial urgency” to pass legislation without adding sufficient safeguards.
Among the changes safety advocates seek in the AV legislation:
- Reducing the number of vehicles that could be exempted from federal safety standards
- Barring exemptions from crashworthiness standards
- Barring manufacturers from disabling safety systems such as brake pedals
- Requiring NHTSA to issue minimum performance standards
- Eliminating the ban on state regulation of autonomous vehicles.