Advocates rally on Capitol Hill for self-driving car legislation

Advocates rally on Capitol Hill for self-driving car legislation
© Getty Images

Advocates for creating federal standards for autonomous vehicles rallied on Tuesday to spur lawmakers to move quickly on legislation to roll out and test the emerging technology.

Representatives of automobile manufacturers and stakeholder groups argued forcefully for the need for federal rules to create standards around autonomous vehicles at a forum on Capitol Hill.

The push comes as lawmakers are circulating draft legislation on self-driving cars among stakeholders after long delays but with no bills formally introduced in Congress.

ADVERTISEMENT

The advocates, brought together by the Coalition for Future Mobility, warned of the danger of falling behind the rest of the world in creating and testing these cars, and the worry that states would act without federal guidance, creating a patchwork of laws.

Ron Thaniel, the vice president of legislative affairs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, noted that states are creating regulations around self-driving cars “because they have to.”

“I have not heard a single state say they want to do this,” Thaniel said. “This is an election calendar, we have a short calendar next year, and we need to move forward, and if we don’t, we’re going to have more and more states developing regulations around automated vehicles. It’s time to get in place a federal framework.”

Thaniel was joined by representatives of the National Federation of the Blind and from Securing America’s Future Energy, who highlighted the benefits that self-driving cars could offer by increasing mobility for the disabled and reducing oil dependence. 

Hilary Cain, the director of technology and innovation policy at Toyota North America, also argued for federal legislation on self-driving cars, noted that “there is not currently a path to widespread deployment of driverless vehicles in this country.”

“Federal legislation is needed to establish a clear plan and timeline for addressing these existing regulatory barriers and for implementing a regulatory framework that will provide for the safe and responsible deployment of this technology going forward,” Cain added. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Toyota is among the major global car manufacturers that has already started building and testing autonomous vehicles, along with other groups such as Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and General Motors. Other transportation groups like Uber and Lyft are also involved in the testing of self-driving cars. 

The pleas by stakeholders for Congress to move forward on legislation come amid signs of some progress on Capitol Hill. 

The Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee are currently in the process of circulating draft language for a new bill to address autonomous vehicles that is similar to a previous bill that was passed by the House in 2017.

This previous bill, the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act, had bipartisan support, but failed to get a vote in the Senate.

In late October, the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee began circulating portions of a new draft bill among industry stakeholders for comment. The first portions circulated included language on creating an advisory council at the Department of Transportation to evaluate autonomous vehicle issues, and on the creation of federal regulations around testing self-driving cars. 

This week, committee staff sent out more portions of the draft bill for review, covering definitions, federal preemption of any state laws on self-driving cars, and updating motor vehicle safety standards to include autonomous vehicles, such as evaluating the cybersecurity of the cars. 

A senior congressional aide provided the draft bill language to The Hill, along with an email from committee staff to stakeholders that asked for input.

“Staff continue to work on a bicameral, bipartisan basis to develop sections on other issues,” the committee staff wrote. “As other sections are prepared, we will circulate those to stakeholders for feedback. These sections are proposals developed by staff, and do not necessarily represent the policy positions of Members.”

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerLet's enact a privacy law that advances economic justice There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Trade deal talks expand as Congress debates tech legal shield MORE (R-Miss.) said at a recent committee hearing on autonomous vehicles that the committees have “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.

Timing on when a bill will be formally introduced, however, remains unclear, particularly as Congress looks to push through funding bills prior to the end of the year, and with the House conducting an impeachment inquiry into President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE.

Wicker acknowledged those challenges, telling The Hill on Tuesday that he was “not able to give a timeline” on when the bill will be introduced, and adding that “this is not one of the issues that has been at the forefront the last several weeks.”

Any new bill is also likely to attract opposition from some quarters.

In the last Congress, the SELF DRIVE Act and the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act, failed to advance in the Senate amid opposition from a group of Democrats. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was among the Democrats to block consideration of the AV START Act in 2018, citing concerns around the bill’s language on safety and security, particularly in the wake of a fatality caused by an Uber autonomous vehicle in Arizona at the beginning of 2018. 

Blumenthal told The Hill on Tuesday that he will still look closely at any new bill introduced around self-driving cars to ensure that safety is prioritized.

“I think, most importantly, it has to assure safety and sufficient protections for both pedestrians and other drivers as well as people in the cars that there will be testing and standards that assure very rigorous safety,” Blumenthal said. 

He added that “the predictions about how quickly these cars will be on the road have proven a little bit over-optimistic in terms of the technology and the reliability of the cars.”

"Some of the predictions were that we would have them on the road right now, but I think it’s going to be gradual and most important, the legislation has to ensure safety," Blumenthal said.

Advocates for self-driving cars though emphasized that passing a federal framework was essential.

“It’s very clear for us there is a race to the automated vehicle future, and if we don’t put in place a federal framework that clearly defines the federal role and state and local role, we are going to lose that race,” Thaniel said.

“Our fragmented approach to this right now, this patchwork approach to what we are doing in this country, benefits China, so we need to move forward.”