Five actions Congress may take on self-driving cars

Five actions Congress may take on self-driving cars
© Getty Images

Lawmakers are exploring ways to speed up the deployment of self-driving cars as the auto industry and safety advocates clamor for action at the federal level.

A sweeping autonomous vehicle measure is quickly moving through the House, and a bipartisan group in the Senate is planning to release a major legislative package after the August recess.

“We can set the stage for the continued development of self-driving cars and ensure America stays the innovation leader that it is,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which drafted the lower chamber’s bill.


The most significant congressional effort yet to address the emerging technology comes as traffics deaths have been climbing. Automakers now are promising aggressive timelines to bring fully driverless vehicles to the market as quickly as possible.

There are likely to be a few differences between the House and Senate measures, and some divisions between Democrats and Republicans were also on display during hearings on the topic. But lawmakers appear to generally be on the same page.

Here are five actions Congress may take on self-driving cars.

More exemptions

Autonomous vehicle developers have warned lawmakers that they will soon run into a major problem as more and more companies try to design and test driverless cars.

Under current federal safety standards, all cars are required to have a steering wheel and floor pedals. Some automakers, however, want to build fully driverless cars that don’t have those traditional automobile features, which means they need to seek an exemption.

Federal officials can only grant a limited number of exemptions — 2,500 per year — which could eventually become an issue as more companies seek to develop the technology.

That’s why lawmakers in both chambers have expressed a desire to lift the federal cap. The House legislation, for example, would raise the number of exemptions to 100,000 per year.

But in the wake of concerns from Democrats, bill sponsors agreed to include a phase-in period for the exemptions, so they don’t all hit the roads at once.  The measure also requires all exempted vehicles to be made public and requires that any crash involving an exempted vehicle must be reported.

Preventing a patchwork of state laws

Another top concern from the auto and tech industries is a messy patchwork of state laws governing the operation and deployment of driverless cars.

In the absence of specific federal laws, a number of states have been stepping in with their own rules and regulations.

But developers say that will hinder innovation and make it too difficult to operate an autonomous vehicle across state lines.

Congress will almost certainly try to clarify the state versus federal role in any driverless vehicle legislation — and that may include federal pre-emption.

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) already released voluntary guidance on the topic last year, the industry has said it wasn’t enough.

The House bill would prohibit states from imposing laws related to the design, construction or performance of self-driving cars. But local governments would still maintain traditional auto responsibilities, such as licensing, registration, insurance and law enforcement.

Similarly, a Senate blueprint said their package 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 with respect to self-driving vehicles.”

Boosting safety

Autonomous vehicles have been hailed for their potential to dramatically reduce the number of traffic deaths each year, since the majority of crashes are caused by human error.

But there is also concern from safety and consumer groups that developers may race to get the technology to the public before it’s ready.

In order to attract broad bipartisan support in Congress, any bill is likely to include a focus on consumer and safety protections.

In the House, the legislation approved by committee would require the NHTSA to make rules and set a “priority safety plan” under the proposal.

On the manufacturing side, the industry would be required to submit Safety Assessment Certifications under the measure.

Some Democrats also want to see more money allocated for NHTSA, since the agency will be tasked with additional safety oversight, but more funding was not included in the House version of the bill.

“I am committed to getting this bill through the legislative process, as long as we insist on safety being the top priority,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

No pre-market approval

The NHTSA guidelines that were released last fall identified potential ways for federal regulators to help oversee driverless cars.

One suggestion was requiring developers to get approval from the U.S. before being allowed to bring a new driverless car to the market.

Congress, however, does not appear ready to give NHTSA that power.

The House would require automakers to submit safety assessment reports, but would not require pre-market approval.

Currently, automakers are allowed to self-certify that vehicles adhere to U.S. safety standards.

But the industry has warned that requiring new vehicle technologies to get pre-market approval would be a lengthy and costly process that could stifle innovation.

Protecting privacy and data

Another priority for many Democrats and Republicans is ensuring that consumer privacy is protected in self-driving cars, which is an increasing concern since the vehicles need to collect troves of data in order to function.

There is also worry that an autonomous vehicle could be vulnerable to cyberattacks since it’s run by a computer system.

Under the House bill, all highly automated vehicles would be required to have a written privacy plan that discloses how information is collected, stored and shared.

And manufacturers would be required to consider cybersecurity issues during development and have a process in place for preventing, detecting and responding to hacks.

An advisory committee would also be established under the House measure to explore a number of issues related to self-driving cars, including cybersecurity and privacy concerns.

“We are heading to a future where ... your ride-sharing vehicle knows you like to go out to eat on Thursdays,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).

“All of this will have serious implications for how consumer information is tracked, and used, and sold, and shared. It’s our responsibility to take that challenge seriously.”