House gets serious about driverless cars

House gets serious about driverless cars
© Getty

Congress is weighing legislative steps that could help speed up the development and deployment of self-driving cars.

Automakers pleaded with lawmakers at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Tuesday to ease certain safety standards that apply to traditional automobiles in order to better accommodate driverless vehicles.

Congressional action could be the next major milestone for the emerging technology, which has increasingly been under the spotlight. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Members had mostly discussed driverless vehicles in the context of a hypothetical benefit in the past. Now, with self-driving cars actually being tested on U.S. roads and automakers pledging further development on the horizon, lawmakers are racing to understand how to best strike a balance between supporting innovation and ensuring consumers are safe.

“A decade ago, self-driving cars were a matter of debate. Today, they’re an inevitably,” Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), ranking member on the full panel, said during the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee hearing. 

“And since we know they’re coming to the marketplace, I’m pleased that instead of talking again about the potential benefits, we will actually get into the weeds a bit.”

There have been no overarching federal laws specifically governing self-driving cars, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the first-ever federal guidelines on the issue last fall. 

The voluntary, flexible framework created a 15-point safety assessment for automakers and sought to clarify the state versus federal role.

But while most industry representatives have called the guidance a good first step, many have said that more improvements need to be made.

“We believe there are several areas that should be addressed before the policy is implemented,” said Gill Pratt, executive technical advisor and CEO of Toyota’s research institute.

The primary issue that automakers highlighted was how current industry safety regulations could hamper their ability to roll out driverless cars.

Under current standards, for example, cars are required to have a steering wheel and floor pedals. Autonomous vehicle makers need to apply for an exemption, but federal officials can only grant 2,500 per year, which could become a problem as more companies seek to test and develop the technology.

“It is imperative that manufacturers have the ability to test these vehicles in greater numbers to gather the safety data that will be critical to inform large-scale deployment of life-saving self-driving vehicles,” said Mike Ableson, vice president of global strategy for General Motors. 

“One good way to accomplish this goal is to grant the secretary of Transportation authority to grant specific exemptions for highly automated vehicle development.”

Lawmakers have acknowledged that raising the cap could be one legislative solution. Across the Capitol, Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers Twitter CEO meets with lawmakers to talk net neutrality, privacy Senate votes to save net neutrality rules MORE (R-S.D.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) have signaled that they are exploring a bill aimed at reducing hurdles for self-driving car manufacturers.

“We need to figure out how many waivers are necessary for test vehicles, and how specific they must be,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

However, Nidhi Kalra, co-director and senior information scientist for the RAND Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, cautioned lawmakers that right now there’s no “reason to believe that limit would be hit.”

Another concern raised by auto companies was that despite the federal guidelines, states are still introducing dozens of their own laws governing robot cars. They said a messy patchwork of regulations could significantly stifle innovation.

Joseph Okpaku, vice president of public policy for Lyft, pointed to a proposal in California that would limit driverless car testing to one area in the state.

Some automakers suggested that the federal government should go farther in discouraging states from advancing laws overseeing autonomous vehicle performance.

“Congress should encourage NHTSA to update the [federal guidelines] with an explicit request that states refrain from legislation and regulation of [autonomous] vehicles,” said Anders Karrberg, vice president of government affairs for Volvo Car Group. 

“We believe Congress should consider incentives for states that do not set any vehicle performance requirements or for states that stay within the parameters of the NHTSA model state bill.”

Automakers also warned Congress about measures it should not take. Specifically, they urged lawmakers to avoid mandating exactly how manufacturers should meet safety standards and instead said the government should stick to outlining what those performance standards should be.

“We wouldn’t want the government … to specify specific steps or solutions,” Ableson said. “The goal is to prove they’re safe.”