Wheels begin to turn on self-driving car legislation

Congress has yet to roll out comprehensive legislation that would create federal standards for self-driving cars this year, but the wheels have started turning on new efforts to draw up policy.

Movement on the issue follows pressure from industry groups and agencies that have been pushing for government guidelines to address the testing and use of autonomous vehicles.

Both the Senate Commerce Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee have been soliciting feedback on language for legislation around self-driving cars in recent months, but as of this week, no bills have been introduced this Congress.

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This lack of legislation contrasts last year’s governing body, when the House passed the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act within the first year, a bill that would have created federal standards for autonomous vehicles.

In the Senate, the similar bipartisan American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act was also introduced within the first year, sponsored by now former Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).

However, both the SELF DRIVE Act and the AV START Act stalled out in the Senate at the end of 2018, following sustained opposition by a group of Senate Democrats, who had concerns around safety and security language in the bills.

Other consumer organizations also had concerns around this bill. Officials from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Consumer Reports, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Center for Auto Safety describing the bill voiced their worries in an op-ed to The Hill last year, deeming it a threat to public safety due to its safety language.

At the time, members of Congress and industry groups alike mourned the bills failure, with Hilary Cain, Toyota’s director of technology and innovation policy, tweeting in December that we “will look back on this years from now and shake our collective heads over how Congress failed to get out ahead of this and establish a federal framework for this emerging technology.”

The discussion about self-driving car legislation however, was slowly reignited this Congress, and there is currently an ongoing bipartisan process to draft legislation around self-driving cars in the works in both the House and Senate.

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The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing earlier this month on autonomous vehicles, during which committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said that the group “has restarted its efforts to craft legislation to set a federal regulatory framework governing the safety of [autonomous vehicles].”

Wicker noted that the Senate Commerce Committee had “already received more than 100 letters from industry, state and local governments, and consumer and disability advocates” on the subject of new legislation on autonomous vehicles, and said that Thune and Peters were again spearheading the new bill in the Senate.

“This committee is working with the House Energy and Commerce Committee to draft bipartisan, bicameral legislation through a consultative process involving stakeholders,” Wicker added.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which originally authored and approved the SELF DRIVE Act, began circulating draft language compiled by staff from both committees for a new bill to stakeholders late last month. 

The draft language is very similar to the SELF-DRIVE Act, and includes the establishment of a “Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Council” within the Department of Transportation to evaluate issues related to self-driving cars, and addresses federal regulation around the testing of autonomous vehicles.

Committee staff wrote in an email to stakeholders asking for their input and that they “continue to work on a bicameral, bipartisan basis to develop sections on other issues. As other sections are prepared, we will circulate those to stakeholders for feedback.”

Other sections not yet circulated from the former bills dealt with cybersecurity protections for autonomous vehicles, including provisions that would require vehicle manufacturers to develop cybersecurity plans before selling the vehicles, and those to boost protections against the cars being hacked.

Despite feedback from various groups and agencies, timing around the introduction of a self-driving cars bill is still unclear, particularly as the focus increasingly shifts to the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and as the Senate Commerce Committee puts the spotlight on data privacy legislation.

A spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee told The Hill this week that “stakeholders have given feedback,” but said there was no timing around formal introduction of legislation.

Wicker was even less certain, telling reporters prior to the Senate Commerce Committee’s autonomous vehicles hearing that he expected the hearing to “deal with a number of legislative proposals,” but not answering questions around timing for a bill to drop.

Wicker added that it was “a good question” as to how closely the new legislation would stick to the original AV START Act.

The urgency for the introduction of a new bill on self-driving cars is increasingly clear, as the majority of major car manufacturers have already begun testing autonomous vehicles, and as one fatality involving a self-driving car has already taken place.

During the Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing on autonomous vehicles, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, testified that “in the absence of federal ADS [automated driving system] safety standards or specific ADS assessment protocols,” states had stepped in to fill the gap.

“The testing of developmental ADS—with all its expected failures and limitations—requires appropriate safeguards when conducted on public roads,” Sumwalt said. “Unfortunately, there has been an absence of safety regulations and federal guidance regarding how to adequately evaluate an ADS, which has prompted some states to develop their own requirements for AV testing.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has also stepped in to address regulating the testing and rollout of autonomous vehicles.  

DOT released its “Automated Vehicles 3.0” strategy last year for addressing the rollout and testing of self-driving cars. DOT vowed to work with agencies including the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, along with the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and industry experts to manage cyber risks. 

Joel Szabat, the acting undersecretary for Policy at DOT, testified at the same hearing that DOT is also working closely with Congress to promote legislation. 

“The Department has appreciated the opportunity to work closely with our Congressional partners on ongoing legislative development, as well as focusing the regulatory updates, policy initiatives, and research needed to enable a future with a safer and more efficient transportation system for all,” Szabat testified.

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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