Senate committee approves driverless car bill

  • Wheego.net autonomous vehicle on static display at the City of Atlanta's Smart City Project launch Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. The vehicle was one of three used to demonstrate the city's project to employ high-technology sensors and cameras to guide AV's to improve traffic safety. (AP Photo/Johnny Clark) Johnny Clark

The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Driverless cars came a step closer to reality Wednesday as the Senate Commerce Committee approved comprehensive legislation to clear the way for their introduction.

The bill – and similar legislation already approved in the House – seeks to clarify the role played by the federal and state governments in the autonomous car future. It spells out that states would continue to license, regulate insurance, and enforce traffic laws, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would oversee the design and manufacture of the vehicles.

Like the House bill, the Senate legislation would allow Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to exempt automakers from existing safety standards, eventually permitting the sale of 100,000 cars a year as the self-driving technology develops.

It also requires manufacturers to develop plans to protect autonomous cars from cyber attack. Both the House and Senate bills pertain only to development of driverless cars, and not to the prospect that driverless trucks may become a presence on the highways in 10 or 20 years.

Regulation of the rapidly emerging autonomous car industry has been controversial for several years. Automakers and independent developers of the vehicles generally have sought to be unencumbered by rules that might impede their progress, but they also have looked to states for permission to test their cars on the roadways.

Though the Senate bill gives Chao and NHTSA several oversight responsibilities, safety advocates have been fearful that the absence of regulations would allow unfettered development of the vehicles.

Aware of both arguments, NHTSA last year came out with a list of recommendations – NHTSA called it “guidance” – for the industry. The agency reserved the right to propose regulations as development continued, and Congress has taken on that role with bills in the House and Senate this year.

The Senate bill already has proved controversial.

Democratic senators and safety groups preempted Wednesday’s hearing with a media conference call. Their concerns include the belief that provisions in the bill intended to prevent a patchwork of state laws will strip states of the ability to promote safety regulations. They want greater authority put in the hands of federal regulators.

“There are warning signs that this bill puts too much trust in the hands of automakers and places too little importance on consumer safety protections,” said Jackie Gillan, president of the group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which organized the conference call.

Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook said the bill “puts auto and tech companies in the driver’s seat.”

“It puts the federal auto safety agency in the back seat in terms of ensuring industry accountability,” Claybrook said.

A survey by AAA this year found that three-quarters of drivers said they would be afraid to ride in an autonomous car, and more than half of them wouldn’t feel safe sharing the road with a driverless car.