A House panel on Thursday approved autonomous vehicle (AV) legislation with a 54-0 vote, reflecting overwhelming bipartisan support for advancing the new technology. AVs are expected to significantly reduce traffic accidents, improve fuel efficiency, and boost access to transportation for the blind, the elderly, and the disabled.
The bill is aimed to accelerate the deployment of AVs and allows for federal preemption to keep a patchwork of state regulations from emerging.
The bill grants exemptions to automakers to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles that do not meet existing auto safety standards in the first year. The number of exemptions will increase to 100,000 vehicles annually over three years.
After being introduced last week, the bill was revised this week and will now move onto being debated on the House floor. The Senate bill, meanwhile, has been delayed until the fall.
Below is the story when the original bill was introduced last week
Action surrounding autonomous vehicle (AV) legislation is moving at a quick pace on Capitol Hill. The House dropped a bill on Monday night and it was reviewed at a markup yesterday by the Energy and Commerce Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. The Senate is seeking to introduce legislation before the August recess.
Congress is taking big first steps to advance autonomous technology with comprehensive, bipartisan legislation. Lawmakers are tackling issues such as federal preemption, safety standards, and exemptions for automakers, among other key concerns.
Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) published an in-depth analysis of the bill that can be found here.
The House legislation preempts conflicting state laws that threaten to create an unworkable patchwork of regulations that could stymie innovation and the deployment of this critical technology. Many stakeholders are in favor of this system so that they have to follow one predominant set of laws instead of 50 individual ones. The state-by-state regulatory patchwork that many have warned about has unfortunately emerged.
Under the House bill, states will still be able to establish rules on registration, licensing, liability, insurance, and safety inspections, but not AV performance standards. The federal government would regulate the design, construction, mechanical systems, software systems or communications systems of fully autonomous vehicles.
The House legislation preempts conflicting state laws that threaten to create an unworkable patchwork of regulations that could stymie innovation and the deployment of this critical technology.
One downside in the section on preemption is the potential for states to license AV “drivers.” According to SAFE’s memo, this provision has the potential of “placing obstacles to innovation, including by preventing shared, on-demand business models that are critical to reduced oil consumption, or by impeding the potential for autonomous transportation for people with disabilities, older Americans, and other underserved populations.”
Federal safety standards
Under this section, NHTSA would be obligated to issue a final rule regulating AVs within 2.5 years after the bill becomes law. The agency would also have to periodically update the rules.
The law would also contain a provision to fill the void in the meantime until the federal standards for AVs are written. The Safety Assessment Letter (SAL), which requires firms to submit reports to NHTSA, would serve as an interim regulation. With SAL, Congress is beginning to put together a regulatory framework for AVs. “The use of the SAL as an interim tool is appropriate so long as it does not create an undue burden on AV developers,” SAFE writes in its brief.
Another critical issue addressed in the House legislation is the number of exemptions for vehicles that do not follow current safety standards. The bill would require automakers to submit safety assessment reports to federal regulators, but would not entail advanced vehicle technologies to receive approval before deployment.
Another critical issue addressed in the House legislation is the number of exemptions for vehicles that do not follow current safety standards.
Industry has requested a higher cap than currently given so that it can move forward with deployment and sales of new designs for autonomous cars. Exemptions are necessary to enable new vehicle designs. In the draft bills, U.S. regulators are granting exemptions up to 100,000 vehicles a year per manufacturer—versus 2,500 currently—from federal motor vehicle safety rules that prevent the sale of self-driving vehicles without steering wheels, brakes, and other components used by humans while operating a car.
One big question mark in the House bill, however, is the the exclusion of low emissions vehicles from the exemptions cap. This keeps the existing low cap of 2,500 vehicles per year in place and creates a potential (and completely avoidable) policy gap between AVs and alternative fuel vehicles, even as more and more research shows their natural synergies.
One big question mark in the House bill is the provision that unnecessarily omits exemptions for low emissions vehicles.
In addition to these provisions, the House bill includes measures to expand testing authority by allowing firms that are not OEMs to test an AV with novel design. It also establishes a Federal Advisory Committee to make recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation in order to address issues of importance to deployment of AVs, such as access for the disabled, blind, and elderly. “Creating industry consensus on these issues will be crucial for continuing to develop the AV regulatory framework,” wrote SAFE. Other issues to be addressed in the future include liability and deployment communities.
Beyond the House bill, the Senate so far has kept details of its legislation close to the chest, but the Commerce Committee’s Chairman John Thune (R-SD), along with Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), is expected to release draft legislation relatively shortly.
Even with the real momentum and progress we are now seeing in Congress, the road to comprehensive AV legislation still has a ways to go. Nevertheless, Congress is taking the first important steps. This should then open the pathway to even more revolutionary actions in the coming years.