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House Passes New Legislation for Self-Driving Cars

September 8, 2017 0 Comments

On Wednesday, House lawmakers took a step toward getting autonomous vehicles on the road. They approved new legislation aimed at getting self-driving cars on public roads more easily as well as curbing the states from slowing their speed.

The bill was approved unanimously and will allow automakers to add “hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars to America’s road in the next few years.” States will have to follow the new federal law.


Thus begins the battle between autonomous vehicle manufacturers and safety advocacy groups. Automakers say the new self-driving technology could lessen roadway fatalities and help their business, while safety advocates argue that the cars aren’t ready yet for widespread deployment.


Lawmakers supporting the new legislation blamed the “confusing regulatory environment” for impeding the prospects of self-driving cars.


“Self-driving cars have the potential to save lives, especially when the majority of fatalities are caused by human error,” said Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan). “The question is whether we are in the driver’s seat and not to cede it to China or India.”


Auto and tech giants – including the likes of Ford, General Motors, and Waymo – have pushed hard for the new legislation, as well as asking regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to clarify the safety guidelines that cover self-driving vehicles. Elaine L. Chao, transportation secretary, is expected to announce revised guidelines in Michigan next week.


Dozens of states have passed self-driving vehicle safety laws in the past few years, and automakers consider some of them to be too heavy-handed. Manufacturers fought proposals in California, Michigan, and New York requiring autonomous vehicles to be electric-powered and still have pedals and steering wheels.


“The reason why Congress is doing this is that there was a growing concern of a vacuum created because N.H.T.S.A. hadn’t acted and the states were acting in N.H.T.S.A.’s place,” said Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.


The new bill lets autonomous vehicle manufacturers “obtain some exemptions” from safety regulations “for 25,000 vehicles in the first year after the legislation takes effect” up to 100,000 vehicles within four years. The manufacturers are not exempt from everything, though; they still have to meet certain safety standards developed by NHTSA.


Safety advocates criticized the exemptions, calling them “too broad.” Some safety experts have said that, as written, autonomous vehicles could actually have weaker standards for safety feature like brakes and steering systems.


“This bill threatens the safety of the American public because it will give automakers a huge number of exemptions for safety standards for no reason at all but because they want their autonomous vehicles to be first on the lot,” said Joan Claybrook, chairwoman of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “This is totally reckless.”


Labor unions have been speaking up as well, asking lawmakers to critically consider driverless trucks and cars that could put millions out of work eventually. Consumers Union even sent the House a letter arguing that the bill passed too quickly.


“The overall number of vehicles that can receive safety exemptions should be significantly reduced, and neither the number of exempted vehicles nor the duration of exemptions should be increased without specific safety-related justifications,” the Consumers Union letter read.


The bill prevents states from creating laws “related to the design and operations of driverless cars” but allows them to maintain their authority when it comes to licensing, insurance, and public safety transportation laws.


State officials argue that such delineations are meaningless, asking: How do you hold a driver accountable if no one is driving the car?


Automakers argue that traditional vehicle safety laws are outdated anyway and don’t make sense for driverless vehicles. Business lobbyists said that Congress needs to step up to stop state and city regulations in recent years.


The bill requires NHTSA-created final rules for autonomous vehicle safety standards within two years.


“We applaud the committee’s work to strengthen provisions to limit the possibility of excessive litigation that could ultimately delay, hinder, or halt development,” said Tim Day, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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