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House Tees Up Vote on Rules of Road for Self-Driving Cars

BLOOMBERG BNA
https://www.bna.com/house-tees-vote-n73014464018/

The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote Sept. 6 on a bill that would outline the first national regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles being developed by companies such as Ford Motor Co. and Tesla Inc.

Autonomous vehicle companies and trade groups have applauded the measure (H.R. 3388) as the first significant legislation that could speed up the roll-out of self-driving vehicles. The House plans to consider the bill under suspension of the rules, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a Aug. 31 statement, meaning a limited floor debate and that the support of two-thirds of lawmakers present and voting is required for passage.

“Self-driving vehicles stand to make our transportation system safer and more efficient,” McCarthy said. “Advancing this technology to road-ready requires government policy that encourages continued testing and development.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved the bill July 27. Committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the chairman of the panel’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, have called for quick action after recent upticks in the estimates for vehicular crash deaths on U.S. roads.

About 94 percent of traffic deaths are caused by human error or choice, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research. In 2015, about 35,100 people died in traffic crashes in the U.S., the agency reported.

“This vote will pave the way for the safe testing, development, and deployment of self-driving cars across the U.S.,” Walden and Latta said in an Aug. 31 statement.

Wave of New Designs

The legislation would gradually increase the number of new vehicle designs that could be operated on U.S. roads. Self-driving car companies could apply to manufacture up to 25,000 vehicles that don’t meet current safety standards within a 12-month period; up to 50,000 vehicles the following 12 months; and up to 100,000 vehicles in the following year. The current cap on the number of vehicles a company can manufacture under these exemptions is 2,500.

Industry trade groups backing the increased cap say the expanded exemption program is needed to allow companies to collect more data and, in turn, improve vehicle safety and performance.

Still, groups such as Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety have called the raised exemption cap “unnecessary and unwise.” Those organizations have also called for a provision to require autonomous vehicle companies to share more crash data.

The legislation would set a timetable for the Department of Transportation to update or create new federal motor vehicle safety standards for self-driving cars. In the meantime, it would require companies to submit safety assessment letters to NHTSA and comply with a safety certification process.

Lawmakers also are aiming to clarify federal, state and local authority over self driving vehicles by with bill language saying states can’t set “unreasonable restrictions” on the design, construction or performance of self-driving systems. Consumer Watchdog and other safety advocacy groups have criticized the provision, saying it will preempt some safety standards states have already put in place.

“If the federal government would do its job and act responsibly, that legislation would be unnecessary, because federal motor vehicle safety standards, once enacted, automatically preempt any state standards,” John M. Simpson, the group’s privacy project director, told Bloomberg BNA.

The legislation also requires autonomous vehicle companies to develop written privacy and cybersecurity plans, and creates advisory councils to study the impact of the technology on senior and disabled communities, labor markets, and rural areas.

Stalled Senate Effort

A bipartisan group of senators has also been crafting self-driving legislation that they’ve said will touch on many of the same principles as the House version. That effort stalled earlier this month after hitting opposition from labor unions and Democrats, industry sources and lawmaker aides told Bloomberg BNA.

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had said they were aiming to introduce the bipartisan legislation before August. Republican aides say they now expect a bill to be introduced this fall.

House lawmakers, legal specialists and trade and advocacy groups are also concerned that a lack of resources and funding at NHTSA, the regulatory agency tasked with implementing self-driving vehicle rules, would slow implementation of the legislation if enacted. President Donald Trump has not nominated a NHTSA administrator.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com