Senators ramp up efforts to create standards for self-driving cars

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Two key bipartisan senators are ramping up efforts to create standards for testing and deploying autonomous vehicles, with the renewed effort coming after years of roadblocks in the Senate to create a nationwide framework around self-driving cars. 

Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) on Tuesday strongly argued for the need to advance legislation around autonomous vehicles in order to decrease traffic fatalities and increase the mobility of the elderly and those with disabilities.

“One of the most important opportunities we can seize is autonomous vehicle technologies,” Peters, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports, said during a hearing on the future of automotive mobility Tuesday afternoon.  

“Allowing for the safe testing, the research, development, and deployment of these technologies will not only cement American leadership, but bring with it economic growth and good-paying jobs with improved safety,” Peters noted. “That’s why I am committed to working with the auto industry, stakeholders, my colleagues in congress, and the Biden administration, to ensure we can update federal rules and allow these technologies to emerge safely, and with your help, Congress can chart a very bright future for our country.”

Peters and Thune were the main sponsors behind the AV START Act, legislation that would have created safety and security standards for self-driving cars, but which failed to be passed by the Senate at the end of 2018 due to concerns over safety language from other members. 

The House approved separate legislation in 2018 to create a federal framework for autonomous vehicles, and Republican members reintroduced a version of the bill in 2020, but it failed to get a Senate vote in both instances.  

Thune, who is the former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, pointed during the same hearing on Tuesday to concerns around Chinese competitiveness in the area of autonomous vehicles in emphasizing the need for the United States to prioritize the testing and development of these vehicles. 

“While U.S. companies are currently leading the world in AV technology, this advantage cannot be taken for granted,” Thune said. “China is already acting boldly to take the lead in developing this technology, and if they do, China, not the United States, would play a lead role in the development and standardization of AV technology.” 

He noted past efforts to push through legislation co-sponsored alongside Peters, and made clear the effort would continue this year.

“I look forward to continuing to work with Sen. Peters in a bipartisan manner on this critically important legislative framework,” Thune testified. “AVs have potential to once again transform how Americans move, and the US must once again lead the world in this transportation revolution.”

While a larger piece of legislation could be a potential solution, Peters and Thune are working on an amendment to create standards for the testing of self-driving cars to be potentially tacked onto the Endless Frontiers Act, a massive bipartisan package aimed at increasing U.S. competitiveness with China in key technology areas. 

The legislation was due to be considered by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, but the bill was removed from the committee schedule on Monday, delaying the public debate of any formal amendments.  

A Senate aide told The Hill late last week that the amendment, which has not yet been finalized, would establish a Highly Automated Systems Safety Center of Excellence to review the safety of automated technologies. It would also expand testing exemptions to include autonomous vehicles, and empower the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to issue further exemptions around self-driving cars to allow for more data to be collected. 

Industry witnesses on Tuesday argued strongly for the need to push through legislation around autonomous vehicles, particularly highlighting competition with China. 

“We do need a national strategy,” John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, testified. “We do need a framework that gets us to a new type of regulation, regulation that recognizes the promise of highly automated vehicles, that allows us to create an interim process right now that allows us to test and deploy AVs on public roads safely.”

“Our competitiveness is at stake, other nations that have automotive sectors aren’t standing idly by, they are working every day to seize supply chains, to develop technology, and to write the rules of the road,” he warned. “We need to be in that game, we enjoy a leadership position now, and we risk losing it if we don’t create this national framework to deploy and test highly automated vehicles at scale safely and effectively.”

Peters underlined concerns around road fatalities emphasizing the need to move the legislation through Congress. 

“Every day that we delay, more people die, we can do better than the status quo, and hopefully we will be able to move this forward,” he said. 

Tags China Gary Peters John Thune Self-Driving Cars

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