House lawmakers close to draft bill on self-driving cars

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House lawmakers on Tuesday touted progress toward bipartisan legislation on self-driving cars, with plans to release draft language soon.

The development comes as pressure grows on Congress to quickly provide a regulatory framework for the fast-developing industry.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, told reporters that draft sections would be released “very soon.”

A Schakowsky aide told reporters there will be a minimum of five new sections in addition to six earlier draft sections that were released last year.

Those were seen as a breakthrough for Congress, coming years after lawmakers first began debating rules for self-driving cars. A spokesperson for Republicans on the committee confirmed to The Hill that the last sections are set to be released this week.

Schakowsky’s comments came shortly after her committee held a hearing with a number of high-profile stakeholders on autonomous vehicles as Congress grapples with a number of complicated issues and different approaches to the emerging technology.

“We are working on a bipartisan, bicameral basis to draft a self-driving car bill that will help ensure that these life-saving technologies are safely deployed,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, said in his opening remarks Tuesday.

Congress has long struggled to coalesce around legislation on self-driving cars.

Earlier draft language from the committee incorporated language from two ultimately failed efforts to regulate self-driving cars: the House’s Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act and the Senate’s American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act.

Both bills stalled 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.

The final goal for lawmakers is a framework for regulators to establish safety rules for the testing and deployment of these vehicles. 

The draft bill shared in November 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.

The previous House and Senate bills also included provisions that would require vehicle manufacturers to develop cybersecurity plans before selling the autonomous vehicles and to boost protections against the cars being hacked.

The Republican spokesperson told The Hill that additional language around cybersecurity protections for self-driving cars will be included in the upcoming drafts.

Among those who testified at the hearing were those from the automotive industry as well as safety and public health groups and local transportation officials.

Some industry executives pressed lawmakers to work quickly, arguing that U.S. companies could lose ground to other countries.

Gary Shapiro, the president of the Consumer Technology Association, said that the U.S. is directly competing with China, which is rapidly developing automated vehicle technology.

Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, worried that government inaction in the field has left the U.S. trailing behind competitors.

“The U.S. is in a global race to AVs [autonomous vehicles], but today the cost of inaction is clear: We are behind,” he said during opening statements.

But John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, tried to reassure lawmakers that the U.S. “has the lead right now,” when asked about worries China would overtake the field.

Other stakeholders focused on the role government should play in ensuring that the industry develops safely. Democrats agreed.

“Congress also plays an important role,” Pallone said. 

“We can bridge safety gaps by creating a national roadmap for self-driving cars. We should pass legislation that establishes safety standards and regulations for the gradual deployment of self-driving cars,” he added.

But despite the competing perspectives and pressure to move, Schakowsky told reporters she “doesn’t feel this total need for urgency.” to legislation quickly.

She said it was more important “to get it right,” given safety concerns with the cars.

A number of high-profile accidents involving self-driving cars in recent years have brought increased regulatory scrutiny.

“All of the promise that was listed, I agree with,” Schakowsky said, referring to those who touted the benefits self-driving cars could bring to people whose movement is currently impaired.

“But we need to get it right, and that’s what we’re in the business of doing right now.”

Tags Greg Walden Jan Schakowsky
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