Action on driverless cars hits speed bump as Congress focuses on pandemic


Progress on federal legislation to regulate self-driving cars has hit a speed bump during the COVID-19 pandemic as Congress shifts its focus to other issues. 

For companies that continue to move forward with plans to build and test autonomous vehicles, the lack of federal action opens the door to complicated state-by-state regulations and raises the prospect that the United States will lose the international race to launch self-driving cars. 

It’s a particularly inconvenient situation during a crisis that is sparking demand for human-free transportation and delivery, as autonomous vehicles are slowly starting to be used for activities such as food delivery and medical supply shipments. 

“Congress is rightfully and must be focused on the human impact of COVID-19, and I think that must be on the top of their mind, but the second should be realizing the human benefits that autonomous vehicles can bring,” Greg Rogers, the director of Government Affairs and Mobility Innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), told The Hill on Wednesday. 

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, prospects were bright around the rollout of legislation on self-driving cars. 

The House Energy and Commerce and the Senate Commerce Committees have been working since last year to draft and distribute bill texts to stakeholders for feedback. The bill, which is based on previous measures introduced during the last Congress, is extensive, covering everything from shoring up vehicle cybersecurity to regulating testing. 

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said at a hearing in December that his panel had “restarted its efforts” to regulate self-driving cars, and that more than 100 stakeholders had contacted the committee asking it to take action.

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

But the global spread of COVID-19 and the corresponding impact on Congress’s ability to conduct business have put the brakes on legislation. 

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), a key sponsor of previous autonomous vehicle legislation, told The Hill that the senator “remains hopeful that progress will continue to be made,” adding that Thune and his staff “are still engaged on the issue.”

A spokesperson for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) was similarly noncommittal, telling The Hill that Pallone is “still hoping for a bipartisan, bicameral consensus on a bill.”

But with only eight months left in the current Congress, lawmakers are running out of time to get a bill passed and signed into law.

The lack of action on legislation this year would be particularly disheartening for advocates following the failure of the House and Senate to agree on autonomous vehicle legislation at the end of 2018 after two years of work. 

For autonomous vehicle groups adapting to new opportunities posed by the outbreak, the lack of federal regulation could cause problems.

Cruise, a San Francisco-based self-driving cars group that works with General Motors and Honda, was initially forced to pull their fleet of cars off the road due to shutdowns caused by the pandemic.

Eric Danko, the director of Federal Affairs for Cruise, said during a virtual event Wednesday that the company has since begun human-free meal delivery services for the San Francisco Bay Area community.

A lack of federal movement to provide guidance on vehicles could pose a problem to expansion of these services and to vehicle testing, with Danko arguing that current regulations around normal vehicles need to be updated to account for driverless cars. 

“There is very clear impetus right now to move something forward, and Congress has obviously been hard at work on this for three to four years, and I think the current pandemic just crystallizes one key benefit autonomous vehicles can have,” Danko said. “It’s a tool that we would want to have in our quiver.”

Nuro is another autonomous vehicle manufacturer, and has been involved in driverless grocery and personal protective equipment deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Matthew Lipka, the director of Public Policy and Strategy at Nuro, said Wednesday that he saw a lack of public trust as a major barrier for the driverless push, but that social distancing needs could change that. 

“A lot of people have never interacted with an autonomous vehicle,” Lipka said. “It’s a lot easier to trust a vehicle that shows up in front of your house with dinner … if we can get these vehicles out on the road sooner, it can build trust for the whole industry.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to a rise in tensions between China and the United States. China has poured investment and effort into rolling out autonomous vehicles over the past years, and during its coronavirus lockdowns deployed driverless vehicles to help sanitize streets and make deliveries. 

U.S. advocates argue that China could pose a threat to U.S. leadership in the self-driving cars field, inflaming tensions further, if Congress does not take action on regulation.  

“If we want the next generation to be built in the U.S., if we want the U.S. to lead in transportation in the 21st century like we did in the 20th century, we can’t do that unless we get our act in order and modernize our regulatory structures, pure and simple,” Rogers said. 

While efforts may have slowed, interest in pushing forward legislation still remains on Capitol Hill. 

Wicker and House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) sent a letter to industry groups earlier this month asking for input on how Congress could help to advance self-driving cars, while criticizing China’s efforts to get ahead. 

“Our current crisis underscores the need for the United States to continue leading in automotive innovation, including in automotive vehicle technology,” the lawmakers wrote.

Wicker and Walden also praised efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take action around autonomous vehicles during the pandemic, such as using driverless cars to transport tests. 

Rogers argued that the “cruel irony” of the COVID-19 crisis is that had Congress taken action before the pandemic, self-driving cars might have been an even more valuable tool. 

“If we had passed comprehensive autonomous vehicle legislation in 2018 … manufacturers would have been in a much better place to deploy custom vehicles,” Rogers said. “I don’t think that any serious person will say that we were 110 percent ready to respond to this, because we weren’t ready to respond across any sector, but AVs (autonomous vehicles) could have had a much better impact here.”

Tags Greg Walden Jan Schakowsky John Thune Roger Wicker

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