Congress urged to pump the brakes on self-driving bills

Keith Laing

Washington — Automakers would have too much leeway to test self-driving cars under a package of bills being considered in the U.S. House, safety advocates complained to lawmakers Tuesday.

The measures, which were the subject of House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, would prevent states from passing their own laws on the testing or design of self-driving cars.

Safety advocates complained the measures would allow the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to designate up to 100,000 cars annually that would be exempt from the existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, which did not contemplate the development of self-driving cars. The current limit is 2,500 cars per year.

“There would be less safety and more pre-emption, and it’s all in the name of technological advances, which is wholly unnecessary to (fulfill) testing,” Alan Morrison, Lerner Family associate dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law at the George Washington University Law School, said of the proposed bills.

“These exemptions are not necessary for testing, they are necessary for deployment,” he continued. “Let me tell how broad this exemption is: It would go from 2,500 vehicles a year to 10,000 vehicles in a 12-month period for every single manufacturer of these vehicles, and I believe there are 30-something companies. If my math is right, you multiply 30 times 100,000 per year and you get a idea of how much this exemption is going to allow these vehicles to be on the road with no NHTSA supervision whatsoever.”

Supporters of the proposed self-driving legislation argued it’s necessary to lift the cap on the number of autonomous vehicles that can be declared exempt from federal standards in order to ensure that there is adequate testing for self-driving cars before they are released for mass consumption.

“There are lot of different people that are working on it. We need to make sure that those are developing the technology have the opportunity to test it on-road,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, told reporters after the hearing. “The (automakers) are doing a lot of work, but so are a lot of other companies and we want to make sure that everybody who wants to be part of this innovation and technology is able to test it and contribute.”

The panel’s proposed self-driving measures, which would represent a big win for carmakers, are a stark departure from the Obama administration’s recommendation that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report information about their self-driving testing to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.

Under the Obama administration’s proposed rules, which were nonbinding, automakers and technology companies would have had to meet a set of 15 guidelines before they could place self-driving cars on public roads. Automakers complained that reporting on their self-driving test could delve in proprietary information that would normally be shielded from their competitors view. The new proposal from Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee would require information related to highly automated vehicles to be treated as “confidential business information.”

Mitch Bainwol, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said increasing the number of vehicles eligible for temporary exemption is necessary to stimulate “the generation of data that’s necessary” for new motor vehicle standards.

“We think it’s a really good start,” he said of the proposed self-driving legislation. “It provides the market incentive to drive the investment in this research that ultimately will save so many lives and it enhances U.S. competitiveness in this space.”

Bainwol said it will be years before self-driving cars are commonplace on U.S. roadways, but he said it is important for lawmakers to take action now to make sure they are developed domestically.

“This is a journey we’re going to be on for awhile. Moody’s projects that AVs will not be ubiquitous until 2055,” he said. “The question is ultimately will the technology be developed here in the US or will it be imported.”

Bainwol’s group represents Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., BMW Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Car USA in Washington.

Lawmakers on the panel seemed to embrace the idea that self-driving cars are a fait accompli for U.S. drivers. “I believe future generations will look back and say what a bunch of barbarians. You drove yourself? And how did you text?” U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said.

Democrats on the committee lamented that NHTSA will be charged with enacting regulations for self-driving cars and states will barred from acting on their own under the proposed legislation, noting that President Donald Trump has not yet appointed a NHTSA administrator or a deputy chief for the agency.

“The agency doesn’t even have an employee who could testify today on major legislation that affects it,” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said.

The chairman of the panel that met Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, said he hopes to have the self-driving legislation ready for the full House Energy and Commerce Committee to consider by July so it can move toward a potential vote of the full chamber.

“We’ve got to keep moving, because again this technology is moving with it,” he told reporters after the hearing. “The industry is doing so much now, so we would like to see this moving forward in the next month and getting this out so we can have this bill.

“I think we all know what we have to get done here, because these vehicles are going to be out there,” he concluded.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing