Driverless car bill moves quickly to House floor

Driverless car bill moves quickly to House floor
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A driverless car bill is quickly moving through the House, as Congress races to pass the first federal legislation to address the emerging technology.

The Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved a legislative package Thursday that would bar states from setting certain driverless car rules and allow manufacturers to deploy up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles per year without meeting existing auto safety standards.

The bill, which comes one week after it was approved by a subcommittee, was the product of bipartisan negotiations, which were reflected in the form of a substitute amendment that dropped late Wednesday night. It is sponsored by Reps. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

The measure now heads to the House floor. 

“We sat down, discussed our differences, and came up with a compromise and negotiated a bill,” Dingell said. “We’re one step closer to signing a responsible framework for the deployment of highly automated vehicles.” 

The Senate is also working on similar legislation, which could be released in the coming days.

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Some Democrats complained that they felt the process is being "rushed." Lawmakers wanted to hold the full mark up before the August recess, which starts in the House next week.

The scramble to address autonomous vehicle technology comes as traffic deaths have climbed at an alarming rate, while automakers are pledging aggressive timelines to bring driverless cars to the masses. Congress wants to be firmly in the driver's seat when that happens.

There are currently no overarching federal laws specifically governing the operation and deployment of self-driving cars, though there are a number of laws already on the books that developers must obey.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also released the first federal guidelines on the issue last fall, which included a voluntary, flexible framework that created a 15-point “safety checklist” for automakers.

But in the absence of concrete federal laws, a number of states have stepped in with their own driverless car regulations, prompting panic from the industry over a messy patchwork of state laws.

The House bill would prohibit states from imposing laws related to the design, construction or performance of self-driving cars. But local governments would still maintain traditional auto responsibilities, such as licensing, registration, insurance and law enforcement.

Democrats had been concerned that the initial draft would step on states’ abilities to protect residents, but said they were pleased with the final text, which narrowed the pre-emption language. It also clarified that state motor vehicle dealer laws would not be pre-empted.

Democrats were also happy that the NHTSA will be required to do rulemakings and set a priority safety plan under the proposal, while the industry will be required to submit Safety Assessment Certifications.

Manufacturers are also required to consider cybersecurity and consumer privacy issues during development — a major priority for Democrats and some Republicans.

“It may not be exactly the bill that Chairman Latta or I would have written on our own, but it reflects a bipartisan agreement that we reached after months of work and weeks of intense negotiations,” Schakowsky said.

But consumer advocates still have concerns about the proposal.

“Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the gap left by federal inaction on safety standards leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's privacy project director.

The bill also would raise the federal cap on the number of exemptions that can be granted to driverless carmakers who want to design and test cars without traditional automobile features, from 2,500 a year to 100,000.

Under current standards, all cars are required to have a steering wheel and floor pedals. But federal officials can only grant a limited number of exemptions, which could eventually become a problem as more companies seek to develop the technology.

Democrats secured language in the measure that requires a phase-in period for the exemptions, so they don’t all hit the roads at once.  The measure also requires all exempted vehicles to be made public and requires that any crash involving an exempted vehicle must be reported.

Lawmakers have hailed driverless cars for their power to save lives, reduce traffic and enhance mobility.

To help ensure that, the bill would create an advisory committee to focus on giving seniors and the disabled community access to autonomous vehicles.

The provision was particularly meaningful for Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), who has a 28-year-old son with a disability who depends on others for rides.

“This opens up possibilities for those who have disabilities. ... This is probably the biggest challenge we have with our son,” Harper said. “We are excited about what this will do.”