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US lawmakers speed up potentially dangerous autonomous vehicle legislation

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles September 6, 2017
U.S. House lawmakers passed a wide-ranging bill that will allow auto companies to put thousands of self-driving cars on U.S roads. The bill will also allow companies exemptions from car safety standards and design their vehicles without state regulations getting in the way.

Driverless automobiles are an important step closer to becoming a reality on American roads.  The U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday passed—by a vote of 54 to 0--the first significant federal legislation aimed at speeding self-driving cars to market. The measure, called the SELF-DRIVE Act, would require automakers to submit safety assessment reports to U.S. regulators, but would not require pre-market approval of advanced vehicle technologies.

Automakers will be required to meet nearly 75 auto safety standards, many of which were written with the assumption that a licensed driver will be in control of the vehicle. Ohio Republican Bob Latta, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that developed the legislation, said:

With this legislation, innovation can flourish without the heavy hand of government.  U.S. companies are investing major resources in the research and development of this tech and should not be held up by regulatory barriers” put in place when self-driving cars were science fiction.

The House bill would put the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in charge of regulating self-driving car safety and allow manufacturers to eventually introduce as many as 100,000 self-driving cars per year that don’t comply with current safety rules.  It also instructs NHTSA to develop new standards for self-driving cars.

Those issue now moves to the much slower moving Senate which is already struggling with a full plate of must-pass legislation and the effects of two major hurricanes. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairmen of the Senate Commerce Committee, have been working behind the scenes for months on their own self-driving car bill.  They plan to hold a hearing on Sept. 13 to see whether self-driving car legislation should include self-driving trucks, they announced Wednesday.

Not everyone is happy with the House bill.  Consumers Union, the policy wing of Consumer Reports, said lawmakers should have imposed stronger safety regulations on driverless vehicles. John Simpson, spokesman for advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said:

There are no enforceable (federal) safety standards. The main concern is that it does away with the states’ ability to have any safety standards in place,” Simpson said. “All we’ve gotten is some loose guidance. I’d like to see some national, enforceable safety standards.

Simpson added that standards need to be put in place for issues such as how robot cars must respond to hand signals at a construction site and how quickly they would have to pull over safely and stop in event of a system failure.

Labor unions expressed doubts that Congress had forged ahead without seriously considering the implications of the technology on jobs and industries like trucking.

A study by the progressive research group Center for Global Policy Solutions, estimated that a rapid transition to automated vehicles could result in more than 4 million lost jobs in the U.S., with taxi, bus, and truck drivers among the hardest-hit.

Larry I. Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO, in a statement that driverless technologies "are likely to cause massive job dislocation and impact worker safety."  He added:

While the committee has tried to improve this bill, more needs to be done to make sure we adopt the right regulatory and labor policies governing the introduction of autonomous vehicles into the economy.

Proponents, who, not coincidentally, include self-interested parties like Ford, Google and Uber say self-driving vehicles could help eliminate the human error responsible for some 94 percent of the more than 30,000 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. each year. The issue has gained a sense of urgency after a rise of deadly crashes in recent years following a period of decline. Most of the increased deaths, experts agree, comes from distracted driving, people texting or fiddling with their smart phones while driving.

My take

The overwhelming bipartisan approval of the Self-Drive Act in the House suggests the Senate should be able to scare up enough votes to approve the bill or a similar Senate bill worked out with the House.  This is in direct contrast to the UK situation where government policy remains unclear. The big obstacle is time.  With only 11 work days left in September, the Senate is already dealing with critical legislation to fund the government for next year, raise the debt limit, provide disaster relief for one—and probably two—major hurricanes, begin the hard process of tax reform or even make a new stab at reforming ObamaCare.

Whether the Senate has the time and bandwidth to deal with autonomous vehicle legislation this year is a real question mark.  And everyone agrees that getting things passed in the first session next year is going to be a lot more difficult.

Image credit - © scharfsinn86 -

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