Senators eye lifting brake, pedal requirements for more driverless cars

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A Senate panel is eyeing legislative steps to make it easier for driverless cars to be exempt from brake and pedal requirements.

During a hearing on Wednesday, stakeholders pleaded with lawmakers to ease current industry safety regulations that are meant for traditional automobiles, which they say may hinder the testing, innovation and deployment of self-driving cars.

Under current standards, all cars are required to have a steering wheel and floor pedals. Autonomous vehicle makers thus need to apply for an exemption if they wish to design and test cars without those features, but federal officials can only grant 2,500 per year, which could eventually become a problem as more companies seek to develop the technology.

{mosads}“It’s vitally important. You have to have uniformity, but you also need exemptions, and a substantial number, to generate the test data,” said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “And secondly, there’s a massive economic commitment here, and in order to make it economically attractive and make the math work, you’ve got to be able to deploy.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) — who is currently crafting autonomous vehicle legislation — signaled that he is exploring legislative solutions to address the issue, which could include lifting or raising the federal cap on the number of exemptions that can be granted to driverless carmakers.

“Current federal motor vehicle safety standards do not address automated technology, and in some cases, directly conflict with it,” said Thune, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “We are looking for ways to address these conflicts in outdated rules without weakening the important vehicle safety protections they provide.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who is working on the bill with Thune and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), declined to offer further details about their measure but said many of the issues brought up at Wednesday’s hearing have been considered.

“What we heard today, the range of issues … confirmed much of what we’ve been hearing, so it’s certainly affirmed that we are on the right track with the legislation we are close to finishing,” Peters said after the hearing.

There is no timeline for when the legislation will be finalized or considered, but Peters said “we’d love to have it out sometime this summer.”

Lawmakers in both chambers have been working on a package of bills designed to speed up the deployment of driverless cars, which they say have the potential to save lives, enhance mobility and reduce traffic.

“33,000 deaths occurred in 2015 due to the driver. Many, if not all, were preventable,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “It breaks my heart to deliver a message like that.”

But there are a number of obstacles facing developers, and there is still wariness among the public about the emerging technology.

One of the concerns expressed at Wednesday’s hearing is the messy patchwork of state laws and regulations on driverless cars, which continue to emerge in the absence of overarching federal laws.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did release voluntary guidelines last fall that created a 15-point safety assessment for automakers with the hope of eventually taking the checklist through the formal rulemaking process.

The Trump administration has indicated that it is currently rewriting the guidance, which is expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks.

There is also worry among safety advocates and consumers about the potential for automated vehicles to be hacked and whether the public will fully understand both the capabilities — and limits — of self-driving cars.

Thune, Nelson and Peters have promised to address cybersecurity and public education in their legislative package, according to a set of legislative principles unveiled Tuesday.

“This is not the first computer,” said Rob Csongor, vice president and general manager of automotive business for Nvidia Corporation. “There is a lot of knowledge on cyber, it just needs to be applied to automotives.”

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