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Washington — Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate touted “careful” bipartisan legislation they are considering to allow automakers to sell thousands of self-driving cars on Wednesday during a field hearing at the Washington auto show.

The hearing, organized by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, provided an opportunity for lawmakers to speak to a largely friendly audience of D.C. auto show attendees who are mostly supportive of self-driving cars. The assembled panel was free of safety advocates who have raised questions about the wisdom of rushing to give automakers wide latitude to test and sell self-driving cars.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is chairman of the panel and one of the chief architects of self-driving legislation that is under consideration in the Senate, said lawmakers have sought to strike an appropriate balance between giving automakers the freedom to test and sell self-driving cars and putting enough regulations in place to assuage fears about driver safety.

Thune noted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said 37,000 people died on U.S. roads in 2016 and that 94 percent of car crashes are caused by human error. Self-driving cars, he said, can save lives because they “cannot fall asleep, get distracted, or become impaired, could potentially save many thousands of lives every year.”

The South Dakota Republican also noted that self-driving cars will also spur new economic activity and improve mobility for elderly and disabled people who currently have difficulty driving if lawmakers continue to take “a careful approach to these new technologies.

“We must allow innovation to thrive while also ensuring the technology is safe and reliable,” Thune said. “We must also refrain from favoring one technology, business model, or type of company over another so as to avoid locking in technology before innovation and market choices can take place.”

Democrats on the panel who are supportive of self-driving cars are similarly optimistic about the future of the bipartisan legislation.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who co-authored the self-driving legislation, said lawmakers “have thought long and hard about making sure that safety is first and foremost in this legislation.”

He added: “The question for me is that we have to get to the point…that we deal with the roughly 40,000 deaths (annually) on the highway and the hundreds and thousands of debilitating injuries. We’re on the verge of making major progress to eliminate nearly all of those when you take out the human error factor.”

Other Democrats were more critical of the effort to quickly approve legislation that would allow automakers to sell thousands of self-driving cars. They noted the recent high-profile recalls that have taken place, such as a Takata’s exploding air bag inflators and General Motors Co.’s ignition switches that caused cars to shut off abruptly or have their air bags disabled if they were jostled out of position.

“I want to avoid creating another generation of cars that may be unsafe at any speed,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said. “We know from our experience that the simplest of devices in automobiles right, ignition switches that malfunction or safety bags that are killers, can pose great dangers.”

Blumenthal, a frequent automaker critic, said he might vote for “some” legislation that relates to self-driving cars in the near future, but he declined to endorse the measure that is being backed now by Thune and Peters.

Panelists who represented members of the auto industry said it is urgent for the Senate to quickly approve the self-driving bill to allow test of the autonomous vehicles to ramp up.

Luke Schneider, president of Audi Mobility U.S., said the self-driving measure “will create for innovators a consistent national regulatory framework for automated vehicles necessary to advance the mobility solutions that will positively transform American cities, provide mobility to the elderly and disabled, and ensure greater safety on our roads.

“Passage of this legislation will allow us to realize the three transportation revolutions we so often talk about: shared mobility, electrification and automated vehicles, enhanced by digitalization.”

Safety advocates who were not invited to participate in the panel Wednesday expressed reservations about whether lawmakers are doing enough to ensure the safety of self-driving cars.

“Right now, we’re concerned that companies are competing to be the first, not the safest,” David Friedman, director of Cars and Product Policy and Analysis for Consumers Union, said in a statement. “Instead of cheering on that race, Senate legislation should require safety first, regardless of whether a human or software is doing the driving.”

Thune, the chairman of the panel, noted that U.S. automakers are facing stiff competition from foreign competitors who are also working to develop self-driving cars. He warned that “the rest of the world will not sit by” while U.S. lawmakers debate legislation.

“America currently leads the way in auto innovation, but many other countries, particularly China, are catching up,” Thune said. “We all want America to remain competitive and see the benefits of new jobs and new economic growth.”

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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