Driverless cars speed onto political agenda


Washington is racing to keep up with the rapid development of self-driving cars.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are crafting a package of autonomous vehicle bills due out this summer, the Trump administration is rewriting federal guidelines for driverless cars and K Street has increasingly ramped up lobbying on the issue.

The effort reflects just how close many believe the emerging technology is to becoming a practical reality for the masses — and policymakers want to make sure they are firmly in the driver’s seat.


“This is happening very fast,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), one of the members behind the Senate’s legislative effort, told The Hill. “That’s the challenge, is you have a technology that is moving at an exponential rate, and you have public policy and regulations that move at a snail’s pace.”

“We’re trying to get ahead of that,” he added.

The scramble to address the emerging technology comes as traffic deaths climb at an alarming rate, largely due to distracted drivers, which has only increased the interest in driverless cars.

Autonomous vehicle technology has long been viewed as a way to save lives, reduce traffic and improve mobility.

Full deployment may still be years away, but the development has accelerated at a rapid rate.

Over the past year, auto companies have vowed aggressive timelines to build fully driverless cars, while ride-hailing firms like Uber are already testing semi-driverless technology in some cities.

The U.S. is also facing pressure from competitors around the globe.

“Other nations are moving forward with the technology, and we want to make sure the U.S. is right there at the forefront,” said Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), who is leading legislative efforts in the House.

There are currently no overarching federal laws specifically governing the operation and deployment of self-driving cars, though there are a number of laws already on the books that developers must obey.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the first-ever federal guidelines on the issue last fall, which included a voluntary, flexible framework that created a 15-point “safety checklist” for automakers.

But in the absence of concrete federal laws, a number of states have stepped in with their own driverless car regulations, prompting panic from the industry.

The concern over a messy patchwork of regulations is likely to be one of the main issues addressed in upcoming congressional legislation.

In the Senate, John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member; and Peters are working together on legislation that could be unveiled this summer.

They outlined their top priorities for the bill, which include reducing barriers for the vehicles, strengthening cybersecurity, reinforcing separate federal and state roles and better educating the public about the emerging technology.

The legislation will “prevent conflicting laws and rules from stifling this new technology” and “make necessary targeted updates for new challenges posed by the current regulatory environment,” according to a summary of legislative principles.

Peters said that staff members have held more than 100 meetings with various industry stakeholders, and the Commerce panel convened a recent hearing to gather more input for its bill.

Their goal is to create an environment that is focused on safety while also remaining flexible, since automated vehicle technology is evolving so rapidly.

“This is, no question, the most comprehensive effort” to address autonomous vehicle technology in the Senate, Peters said.

Their measure may also raise the federal cap on the number of exemptions that can be granted to driverless carmakers who want to design and test cars without traditional automobile features.

Under current standards, all cars are required to have a steering wheel and floor pedals. But federal officials can only grant 2,500 exemptions to those rules per year, which could eventually become a problem as more companies seek to develop the technology.

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

Across the Capitol, lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are also revving up the debate over self-driving cars.

The digital commerce and consumer protection subcommittee will hold a hearing next week to consider 14 draft bills on autonomous vehicles.

Some of the ideas under consideration include barring federal regulators from requiring pre-market approval for autonomous vehicles, allowing up to 100,000 cars per year to be exempt from traditional automobile requirements and establishing a framework for how developers should share test and crash data.

Latta, who chairs the subcommittee, said the goal is to put together a package after gathering feedback from members and get the bill through committee by August.

“We want this to be regular order,” Latta said. “We’ve got to get this right.”

The White House has also taken an interest in the issue.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the administration is revising the Obama-era guidelines for driverless vehicles, with updated guidance expected in the next few months.

“The pressure is mounting for the federal government to do something,” Chao said during a conference in Detroit earlier this month, according to Reuters. 

The new guidance will focus on spurring industry innovation and encouraging “new entrants and ideas that deliver safer vehicles,” Chao said. But she also emphasized that the agency would not rush to draft binding regulations on self-driving cars.

“Too quick of movement toward rules may not be sustainable in the long term,” Chao said. “We don’t want to have rules that may impede future advances.”

On K Street, lobbying work is also well underway. A number of industry groups joined forces last year to create their own lobby group, called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

The coalition, which has already spent more than double on lobbying this year than it did in 2016, has pushed to shape federal guidelines and has fought back against state laws that could be harmful to the industry.

This year, the group is working to be a part of the legislative conversation in Congress as well.

Efforts to better educate the public about the potential benefits — and limits — of self-driving cars have also become increasingly important as more cars with semi-driverless features hit U.S. roads.

A fatal Tesla crash last year, in which the vehicle was engaged in autopilot, has further increased consumer skepticism about the technology.

Latta said “things are moving ahead” much more rapidly than people would have imagined five years ago, which is why federal regulators need to intervene now so that they don’t get caught flat-footed later on.

“That’s why we want to make sure we have the right legislation out there, to make sure we help, not hinder, innovation,” Latta said.

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