Washington — Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate are scheduled to debate legislation on Wednesday that would set rules for self-driving cars at a time when automakers are already putting cars on the road that are capable of at least some hands-free driving.
General Motors Co. subsidiary Cadillac is rolling out its new Super Cruise technology that allows drivers to go hands-free for long stretches of highway driving on 2018 versions of its CT6 sedan. Volkswagen AG subsidiary Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist system, which allows for 15-second intervals of hands-off driving at slow speeds, is available on 2017 A4 and A7 sedans.
Audi is also planning to make its “Traffic Jam Pilot,” which allows travel hands-free up to 35 miles per hour, available on the 2018 Audi A8. It has prototypes for a “Highway Pilot” feature that can change lanes and pass cars independently, which Audi says will be available commercially by 2021.
The new semi-autonomous offerings join Tesla, whose Model S autopilot system has developed a fan club among self-driving enthusiasts, despite increase scrutiny stemming from a 2016 fatal crash that roiled the debate about self-driving.
Consumer safety advocates say this period when partially self-driving cars are interacting with human-operated vehicles is more dangerous than when cars are fully robotic. Supporters counter that these partial self-driving systems are a logical extension of adaptive cruise control systems that have become popular in recent years and the next step on the path to full autonomy.
The debate comes as lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation take up legislation that would allow automakers to operate thousands of autonomous cars per year on U.S. roads.
“Self-driving vehicles will completely revolutionize the way we get around in the future, and it is vital that public policy keep pace with these rapidly developing lifesaving technologies that will be on our roads in a matter of years,” U.S Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, a member of the Commerce Committee and a key sponsor of the proposed legislation, said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, added that the development of self-driving cars will be good for Michigan’s economy. “Michigan has the workforce, the partnerships and innovative spirit to be the national and global leader in autonomous and connected vehicles,” she said.
Safety advocates say lawmakers are too focused on automakers’ promises about the potential for fully self-driving cars to improve safety on U.S. roads and increase mobility for people who are unable to drive themselves.
John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog group, said lawmakers should table the proposed legislation “until there is some kind of mandatory safety standard with respect specifically to autonomous vehicles.”
He pointed to a fatal accident last summer involving a Tesla vehicle that collided with a semi-trailer that was undetected by the car’s Autopilot feature as evidence of the dangers of the period were some cars are semi-autonomous and others are not.
“There seems to be a rush to do what’s in the perceived interest of the automakers to get these vehicles out as quickly as possible,” Simpson said. “That’s going to kill people.”
Automakers would be able to apply for exemptions to operate more than 100,000 self-driving cars per year after five years under the proposed legislation if the U.S. Secretary of Transportation grants them an exemption to federal motor vehicle rules that require cars to have human operators. The current limit for such exemptions is 2,500 cars for two years at a time.
The measure would apply to vehicles in which there is a system that operates with the expectation that a human driver will take over upon being prompted. The legislation would also cover cars with high automation levels, where the automated driving can perform maneuvers even if a human driver does not take over when promoted – and for full automation, when the automated system is responsible for all driving tasks.
Self-driving trucks were dropped from the legislation after a high-profile campaign from labor unions to protect the jobs of professional drivers.
A similar measure that would allow automakers each to operate up to 100,000 self-driving cars per year on U.S. roads was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last month.
Both versions of the proposed legislation prohibit states and other local jurisdictions from adopting regulations related to cars’ design, construction, software or communication. States still would be allowed to regulate registration, licensing, liability, education and training, insurance or traffic laws.