Congress Debating Legislation To Regulate Self-driving Cars

Proponents of self-driving vehicles say they would make a major dent in the number of U.S. highway deaths each year. Across the nation, there were more than 40,000 highway fatalities and 2 million injuries last year. However, safety and consumer advocates are concerned about self-driving cars being on the road in large numbers without regulations in place to evaluate safety.

These advocates wants some basic rules of the road set before lawmakers allow expanded testing of self-driving cars. House lawmakers are currently debating the first federal legislation related to autonomous vehicles. The Senate is working on its own legislation for approving self-driving cars and trucks.

Companies are racing to develop self-driving car technology. General Motors Co. recently expanded its fleet of self-driving Bolt electric cars to 180 vehicles testing on roads in Detroit, San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona. Ford Motor Co. plans to put self-driving cars on the road by 2021.

The group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety say that automakers should be required to certify the safety of driverless vehicles before they can be tested on roads. Group Executive Cathy Chase said in an interview, “We think that before automated vehicles are put on the roads, they should be required to go through a functional safety evaluation.”

The advocates also say that Congress should allow fewer vehicles to be tested on the roads than proposed under legislation being considered by a House Energy and Commerce panel. Self-driving vehicles that don’t comply with federal auto-safety standards are allowed to be tested on public roads under certain limited circumstances. The two current exemptions are capped at 2,500 vehicles a year, but the draft legislation would expand that cap to 100,000 vehicles.

Some are criticizing lawmakers for acting to move bills out of committee without input from the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That position is currently vacant awaiting a Trump administration nominee. The Obama administration’s voluntary guidelines for safe autonomous vehicle deployment gives NHTSA oversight of the technology. Lawmakers did not hear from the NHTSA at the last hearing on the matter.

Trade groups for automakers have called for the federal government to take the lead on regulating the industry. Automakers and technology companies are worried about the patchwork state-level self-driving car rules differing between locations. The bills under consideration in Congress would prohibit states from enacting different regulations governing the safety and performance of self-driving cars and trucks. Republican Robert Latta, chairman of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee, said federal regulators should oversee vehicle safety, not states.

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